Point Austin: A Life of Quality

In the shadow of another tragedy, the city takes a step toward justice

Point Austin
With a minimum of fanfare or even debate – due only in part to the lateness of the hour – the new City Council voted unanimously last week to endorse the recommendations set forth in a position paper presented by an ad hoc coalition of African-American community organizations, including the Austin Area Urban League, the Capital City African American Chamber of Commerce, and the NAACP. The paper is unceremoniously titled "On the City of Austin's Study of the Quality of Life for African Americans," and is in fact the next step in the community discussion that began on this subject earlier this year.

Formally, the process began with the city's own "Quality of Life Scorecard," a demographer's report documenting institutional inequality for the city's African-Americans. That was followed by a series of public forums and the "Group Solutions RJW Report" generating proposals for amelioration. The position paper is a direct outgrowth of that report and an additional Eastside town hall meeting (June 11) that followed it, and as the presenters emphasized, the attempt is to build upon what has gone before – and not just in the wake of this year's controversies, but a long series of investigations and reports dating back at least to 1998, and most notably the 2001 report by the Austin Equity Commission, which documented increasing inequality in Austin and the disproportionate consequences for people of color.

The point being, this evening, that it would be nice to save ourselves from rhetorical déjã vu all over again, or more simply, as the NAACP's Nelson Linder put it, "Hopefully this opportunity will not be lost." The fact that the city staff, led by administrators Toby Futrell and Michael McDonald, has been directly involved in this current episode of a long historical process lends some hope that this time, a change is gonna come. Just maybe.

The List

The now officially adopted paper has six programmatic sections, adding one (health) to the five already identified in the Group Solutions forums. Presented in summary form last week, they are an attempt to address broad community problems in an integrated fashion over the next six months to two years, and to provide measures of accountability during the process. Here's a thumbnail of the categories:

• Arts, Culture, & Entertainment: aimed at the public promotion and development of local African-American cultural activities, ranging from Convention and Visitors Bureau liaison to an African-American cultural arts district, and including the institutional city promotion of signature events (e.g., Texas Relays, Juneteenth, Heman Sweatt Symposium)

• Business & Economic Development: recruiting new and sustainable black businesses through incentive packages, enforced minority contracting and capital underwriting programs, and technical assistance

• Employment & Education: a range of hiring and education programs, ranging from enforcing the city's own anti-discrimination policies to partnering with Austin ISD, tying corporate incentives to minority hiring, and trade apprenticeships

• Health: address radical inequities in local health care, ranging from an African-American community clinic to strategies aimed at prevention

• Neighborhood Sustainability: a whole range of proposals, including homeowner education, infrastructure repair, affordable housing programs, and inclusionary zoning

• Police & Safety: adopt an official city policy for APD of "disablement, and not deadly force"; improve APD's discipline and training programs; and expand police-community interaction to facilitate understanding and reduce racism

The report also contemplates community-wide committees addressing and monitoring the various categories of action. Under the council's direction, city manager Futrell anticipates assigning six director-level staff members, costing out the various initiatives, and returning to the council in October with a proposed first-year budget.

No Peace Without Justice

That summary is necessarily breathless, but overall the proposals fall neatly within traditional approaches, and indeed many of them the city is already attempting, although not in a fully coordinated way. The most expensive and most difficult fall under "neighborhood sustainability" – if the city had a magic wand to promote development while protecting poor neighborhoods from its inevitable side effects, it would have long since been waved. On the other hand, if as a community we do not find a way to address the burgeoning (and multiracial) inequalities designed into our current social arrangements – on the Westside we're gating whole neighborhoods, on the Eastside we're massing the bulldozers – we shall generate crises that make the debate over Midtown Live look like an episode of Sesame Street.

Despite the momentary era of good feeling, one didn't need to look far to imagine the consequences. Although the "police & safety" category was listed last, Nelson Linder addressed it first, and the report itself begins with an exhortation: "Indeed, as you deliberate and evauluate the community's position paper, we pause also to ask that each of you keep the family of Daniel Rocha in your prayers. Peace without justice is hollow; and prosperity without peace is only a temporary illusion." The police shooting death of Daniel Rocha, two weeks before this meeting, was not directly in its purview, but the incident shadowed the entire discussion, because it is the extreme, deadly outcome of the broader community inequalities the report addresses. And as Linder pointed out, it is no coincidence that such shootings generally happen only in one part of town and to a common group of people.

Linder's recommendation was simple but precise: "We need a policy that says that people that are unarmed and not hurting the police, they should be disabled, and not subjected to deadly force. The policy should come from the city manager, the City Council, and given to our police chief as policy."

We do not know yet exactly what happened to Daniel Rocha – partly because current APD policies concerning patrol car video cameras were not followed, not enforced, or both – and it is likely that we will never know for certain. But the official explanations thus far ring hollow, and the reported version of the officer involved sounds very much like a retrospective explanation for something else: panic. The 2003 shooting of Jessie Owens, in roughly similar circumstances, had much the same ring. We can dismiss these similarities as a random coincidence, or we could surmise, as did Linder, "Officers on the street making bad decisions, based on their fears and their assumptions, that cost a life."

The City Council has now quietly adopted a policy that insists, explicitly, that such fears and presumptions will no longer guide police action – the harsh moment at which good or bad public policy meets the unhappy outcome of generations of history. It will be a long and difficult road to get from here to there.

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