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Naked City

Off the Desk:

December 4, 1998, News

It's been a while since we've heard the word "boondoggle" in relation to a City Council deal, but that word is cropping up more and more in casual conversation in relation to yet another ambitious downtown plan. It includes the construction of a new City Hall facing Town Lake, the purchase of the William P. Hobby office building from the state, and a 99-year lease to the Computer Sciences Corp. software development corporation. Residents will have a chance to weigh in on the proposal during a public hearing, 5pm today, Dec. 3 ... -- J.S.

From downtown development to Eastside revitalization. After the CSC hearing, at 7pm, the council will hold a public hearing on the proposed redevelopment plan for the East 11th and 12th Street area. The long-awaited, much-debated plan was approved by the Planning Commission last month. The council is expected to vote on it in early January ...

In its continuing effort to forge better relations with the public, particularly Hispanic and African-American residents, the Austin Police Dept.has slated two additional forums on community-police relations for Thursday, Dec. 10. One will be at 6:30pm at the A.B. Cantu/Pan American Recreation Center, 2100 E. Third; the other is at 7pm in Agard Livinggood Building Auditorium at Huston-Tillotson, 900 Chicon. Facilitated by Philadelphia-based law-enforcement consultantsAl Dean and Associates, the meetings give residents a chance to share their personal experiences with APD and to offer suggestions for improvement. Turnout at the previous six forums, held last month in each police sector, was disappointing, some attendees say. But several solid suggestions were made, including the possible creation of a civilian review board to monitor complaints aboutpolice. The forums arose out of the city's settlement of police brutality allegations surrounding a 1995 Valentine's Day party on Cedar Avenue.

The consultants will present their findings to APD Chief Stan Knee early next year. -- L.T.

Rebel Yell

Some traditions die hard, no matter how anachronistic or ironic they may have become. Travis High School students and alumni are staunchly resisting pressure from teachers and parents at other Austin schools to depose the school mascot and fight song -- "Ol' Reb" and "Dixie," respectively. A petition drafted by teachers at Fulmore Middle School, supported by local P.T.A.s, the Austin Association of Teachers, the NAACP, and the League of United Latin American Citizens, calls for the "termination" of all Confederate symbols at the school. But the Travis High community argues that the mascot and song have become part of the school's proud history and no longer glorify Southern slavery. The Travis High administration, meanwhile, is in the awkward position of deferring to those who want to keep whistling "Dixie" even as it quietly removes depictions of "Ol' Reb" and other Confederate vestiges from the school.

The "Dixie" fight song has long been controversial at Travis High, where the student body is roughly 70% Hispanic and 12% African-American. Since the 1980s, some parents have refused to stand when the song is played at basketball and football games. Austin Association of Teachers president Brenda Urps, who is African-American, says her son especially hated the song as a member of the school's marching band.

"He had to play "Dixie" to be in the band, and he was like, 'I can't deal with this," says Urps.

Last fall, Fulmore Middle School teachers John Fuerst and Victor Martinez got 40 Fulmore teachers to sign their anti-Rebel petition, and have since tried unsuccessfully to have the matter discussed by the Travis High Campus Advisory Council, a governing body of students, faculty, and parents. Fuerst and Martinez turned to the AISD administration for help, but superintendents and the school board stated clearly that they wouldn't interfere with the school's sacred symbols, chosen when Travis opened in 1953 as the first high school south of the Colorado River. AISD Superintendent A.C. Gonzalez wrote Fuerst that Travis principal Nelda Howton was minimizing the display of Confederate imagery, having painted over the plantation mural in the cafeteria and removed a largeoutdoor "Rebel" sign. But when Howton proposed a new mascot and fight song, Gonzalez said, "She was met with major resistance from alumni and the current Travis High student body." Area Three Superintendent Yolanda Rocha wrote to Fuerst that "the possibility of changing some of the archaic symbols were met with incredible opposition from parents and students. ... It's amazing how entrenched those traditions seem to be among students and community."

Fuerst says he's disappointed that school leaders won't take a more active role in banning the symbols, and says that until the issue is put to a debate by the Travis Campus Advisory Council, most students won't understand why it's wrong to wave the Stars and Bars. "If the leaders won't deal with this, how do you expect the kids to? Why don't [students] know there's something wrong with these symbols?"

But Howton, who says it's not her call to change the school's symbols against students' wishes, says Fuerst was invited to address the issue through the student newspaper, an offer he refused. She adds that the Confederate flag, which was never officially a school symbol, is no longer allowed on school grounds, even during sporting events, and that, to the students, "'Dixie' is no longer a symbol of the deep South, it's just music."

Yearbook photos, however, show that Rebel imagery is alive and well at Travis High. Students at sporting events are posed carrying the Stars and Bars or brandishing the flag on their heads. That, to Fuerst, is a thoughtless invocation of a shameful past that students should be told is wrong. "Even though they've taken the symbols down at the school, the symbols are still quite evident,"says Fuerst. "If you want to have [the flag] on your truck, that's fine, but this is not appropriate in the public schools." -- K.F.

All Fired Up

Texas A&M's gay and lesbian student population had more than a bonfire to get fired up about during last week's annual log-burning rite before Friday's Aggie-UT Longhorn football game. According to reports, team captain Dan Campbell -- flanked by coach R.C. Slocum, university president Ray Bowen, and a number of A&M administrators -- made derogatory remarks about UT's student body and added that he was glad he attended a university "where women like men and men like women."

This week, on the heels of a bruising loss to UT, A&M administrators scrambled to make apologies all around for the team captain's remark. In a statement issued by the university president, Bowen noted, "The implied criticism of gay and lesbian people was a personal view and not one condoned or embraced by Texas A&M University.

"Our university," Bowen continued, "is one where criticism -- real, implied or unintended -- of people for their differences is unacceptable. ... We should use the unfortunate occurrence at the Bonfire yell practice to cause a renewal of our commitment to the principles of inclusion."

Bowen's statement signals a potential turning point in A&M's rocky history where gays and lesbians are concerned, two openly gay faculty members said Tuesday. In the past, says Harriette Andreadis, an associate professor of English, administrators have been skittish about even using the "the G&L word." Similarly, geology professor Jim Mazzullo described Bowen's apology as "a very positive statement and a significant benchmark in A&M's history. I'm especially pleased," he added, "that Dr. Bowen very explicitly used the phrase 'gay and lesbian.' That's a first." Texas A&M athletic director Wally Groffalso issued a statement of apology, though he made no mention of gays and lesbians.

Both Andreadis and Mazzullo said the A&M climate has never been conducive to gay students. In 1980, the university unsuccessfully fought against a court order to give official recognition to a new gay student organization, and tried to take its case as far as the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear A&M's appeal. More recently, the A&M Faculty Senate tried to pressure administrators into including "sexual orientation" in A&M's non-discrimination pledge, to no avail.

The bonfire incident has led to increased gay organizing efforts on campus, in addition to an intense e-mail and Web site campaign. Campbell's comments can be accessed at into the broadcast); and there's a selection of letters to the president's office on the subject at A.S.

A Small Victory

Once a decorated infantryman stationed in Fort Benning, Ga., Austinite Thad Crouch returned to his former military base Sunday Nov. 22 to protest the continued operation of the School of the Americas, a tax-funded training facility under fire for bloody connections to Latin American militias. Crouch joined more than 2,300 other protesters, including his twin brothers and actor Martin Sheen. "This is a movement that cannot be stopped," Crouch said.

Since 1989, when six Jesuit priests and two women were brutally murdered by a Salvadoran military unit largely trained at the School of the Americas, protesters disturbed by the school's eerie connections to hundreds of human rights abuses and massacres have turned out in increasing numbers. Last year, 601 protesters were arrested on the base -- including Crouch and seven other Austinites. But this year was a little different. No arrests were made; protesters were ushered onto buses and detained by police, but then transported to a local park for release. In any case, protest organizers called the day a victory, and said increased media coverage of this year's demonstration likely encouraged the military to abandon its strict policies of the past.

Among those watching the march from the sidelines was Fort Worth Rep. Lon Burnam. "This has been really uplifting and positive," said Burnam, also the state chair for Peace Action, the nation's largest peace and justice organization. "I'm hoping next year is the last time we'll have to do this protest."

Alan Pogue, photojournalist and Vietnam veteran, followed the marchers onto the base, fighting back tears. "This is a very emotional experience, particularly when you think about all the people killed at El Mozote, where I've been," said Pogue, referring to one of the many bloody tragedies involving soldiers with School of the Americas ties. "The whole village was killed by four units of the Salvadoran army, and now we have people walking here with these tiny little caskets, representing the infants, the children and mothers and fathers who were all killed." Taking a moment to reflect on the thousands of marchers behind him, Pogue added, "This is overwhelming for everyone, including journalists." -- J.F.

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