Naked City

Council Watch: The Name Blame

Naked City
By Doug Potter

Twenty minutes into the public hearing, it was clear the discussion would only get uglier -- and there were still four and a half hours to go. The assembly room in the Conley-Guererro Senior Activity Center was packed to fire-safety capacity, and things were heating up.

The debate over Council Member Danny Thomas' doomed motion to rename Rosewood Avenue for controversial Eastside activist Dorothy Turner quickly veered from a debate over changing the name of the street to a heated discussion about racial politics in East Austin. (All the protesting from Turner's supporters seemed a bit excessive, considering that nobody -- including opponents of the change -- was willing to say a harsh word about her at the microphone.) By the end of the evening, East Austin's African-American community was verbally tearing itself in half.

At the peak of the frenzy, Cedric Muhammad, a Nation of Islam minister, accused black ministers -- "many of whom are homosexuals" who misuse their power to prey on young children, Muhammad said -- of conspiring to keep the community in bondage. The council, many of them looking noticeably stunned, was also accused by several speakers of being racist and not caring about the Eastside.

Two wearying hours later, after five seconds of utter silence, the motion failed for lack of a second. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman was off the dais. Everybody else wished they were.

A separate item tacked onto the agenda by Thomas at the last minute, which would have renamed the Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex for Turner, was withdrawn. For Turner's supporters, it was Rosewood or nothing.

"We won't just name some other street after [Turner]," Jenniffer Muhammed, another Nation of Islam member, said before Thomas made the motion. "We won't compromise. We have compromised enough already."

Which might have been a clear signal to the council, if everyone there had happened to agree with her. A little more than half the room, however, was packed with Eastside residents -- mostly old-timers -- who wouldn't have renamed Rosewood for Harriet Tubman, Barbara Jordan, and Rosa Parks put together.

"The name is part of our history, and you don't destroy history, you don't bury it," said longtime East Austin resident Elinora Walker. "We have not preserved our history properly. We have already lost a lot of history."

It was this faction the council was supporting, they said, when motion failed to come for a vote just before 11pm. "Unfortunately, there's just too much opposition to this for me to support it," Council Member Will Wynn told the crowd, which was already beginning to disperse. Other council members mumbled versions of the same sentiment. All looked like they'd just been hit behind the ears with something heavy.

Upon her return, the mayor pro tem poured on her trademark tact. "I've never seen what was so monumental about a street name," Goodman said. "A street is just a place where you drive. I think we want to do something more significant for Velma Roberts [for whom Hargrave Street would have been renamed, under another Thomas motion] and Dorothy Turner. I don't see why in order to give, we should have to take something away."

A handful of onlookers stayed through the rest of the council's agenda (including the public hearing on the Hyde Park Baptist Church garage; see "Austin Stories," p.18) to watch the motion to rename Hargrave similarly fall flat for lack of a second. None of Turner's supporters or detractors, incidentally, had come early enough to speak for or against a pedestrian safety plan for East Seventh Street, which has historically had the second-highest incidence of pedestrian fatalities in the city. Nor did any of the Turner crowd speak up during another motion by Thomas that approved reimbursements to the Austin Revitalization Authority for improved water and wastewater lines to 11th and 12th streets.

Speakers on both sides mourned the energy lost in the renaming debate. "If we could take that energy and put it into redeveloping East Austin," said Reverend Colby Shorter III of Rosewood Avenue Missionary Baptist Church, which headed the opposition to the change with a 2,266-signature petition, "we would have streets enough to name after everybody."


Harmony at Last?

The City Council has renewed its love affair with the Austin Music Network as of Thursday night, though the station has been "troubled at best -- it might be better to say a disaster -- in every incarnation so far," says Council Member Daryl Slusher. But despite a long history of problems, the council gave AMN a new lease on life with a $390,000 infusion. In the four months since the nonprofit Kenneth Threadgill Foundation took over AMN's operations, the station has cleaned up its act, and is said to be closer to being in the black than it has been in years.


Don't Ask Twice

In what could end up looking like a rerun of Austin's infamous camping ordinance, the council is poised to pass another ordinance making a Class C misdemeanor of "aggressive or intimidating solicitation," or over-persistent panhandling. The city's legal department notes that while "the First Amendment protects communications and merely asking for alms cannot be entirely prohibited," courts tend to uphold ordinances that merely restrict asking coercively.

The camping ordinance, which targeted the homeless by prohibiting activities like building campfires and "sleeping or making preparations to sleep" on the streets, was a rallying point for Austin homeless advocates, and the proposed "aggressive solicitation" ordinance is predictably causing heat in those quarters.

The ordinance "is designed to protect us from our fears," says House the Homeless President Richard Troxell. "The standard is supposedly what reasonable people find aggressive or intimidating. But many 'reasonable people' are afraid of people of different colors, or of poor people." Troxell calls the proposed ordinance "purely subjective," pointing out that in all likelihood it will not be enforced against overzealous Salvation Army bell-ringers or cookie-selling Girl Scouts, both of which, Troxell says, could be considered coercive.

The council is reportedly considering holding off on enforcing the ordinance until at least June, when a city-run downtown homeless shelter is scheduled for completion.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Dorothy Turner, Danny Thomas, Cedric Muhammad, Jenniffer Muhammad, Velma Roberts, Jackie Goodman, Elinora Walker, Will Wynn, pedestrian safety plan, Rosewood Avenue, Austin Music Network, Daryl Slusher, panhandling ordinance, House the Homeless, Richard Troxell

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