Point Austin: Fattenin' Frogs for Snakes

Wave a White Sheet at City Hall, and the Keystone Kops Kome Running

Point Austin
Legendary Austin freedom-fighter John Henry Faulk still looks symbolically down upon City Hall from his memorial perch at the central public library. Were he around in the flesh, I'm sure he would be reminding the folks down on Second Street of the lesson he indelibly learned as a boy from an egg-stealing chicken snake – "A chicken snake can't hurt you, but he can sure scare you so much you hurt yourself."

On Saturday, Nov. 5, about a dozen chicken snakes assembled down at City Hall Plaza, in the form of a group of headline-hungry throwbacks from Greater Metropolitan San Angelo calling themselves the American White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan – these guys are nothing if not tinhorn pomposities – and the city manager's office and the Austin Police Department reacted as though the By-God Civil War were about to break out all over again down on Town Lake. Hundreds of riot-clad officers, SWAT teams, speedboats, helicopters, sharpshooters, and God knows what else (and at what ludicrous expense) grimly surrounded the Klansmen as if they were Dubya Bush & Co. themselves flying in for a Hurricane Rita photo-op. This massive paramilitary display, supposedly intended to defend the free speech rights of the Klansmen, mysteriously also required keeping the rest of the citizens of Austin, presumably once possessed of free speech rights of their own, from getting within even shouting distance of the public plaza.

Moreover, as part of its "security" preparations, the city manager, through the clumsy ministrations of the public information office, decided city officials have the competence and authority to determine who is, and is not, a "professional journalist." The PIO's office – and undoubtedly the notorious chickenshits in the city attorney's office, although nobody is admitting it – decided that credentials could only be issued to paid journalists, either media staff members (no more than three per publication) or freelancers with reference letters from established news agencies. (And this is the Internet-friendly Austin?)

The inevitable results of these two harebrained schemes were 1) a city-and-APD-sponsored-and-authorized Klan rally, complete with embedded media and honored plaza accommodations for any solitary racists who happened to wander by, and 2) the official denial of the same free speech rights for thousands of counterprotesters who were kept so far away from the Klan's private plaza that they couldn't be seen or heard.

Oh, and 3) a First Amendment lawsuit filed by the Texas Civil Rights Project that the city is virtually certain to lose. Especially if the city attorneys are defending.


Staging the News

Setting entirely aside the long-dwindled amusement of baiting the Klan – these bathetic Klowns aren't worth wasting ink or hot air on – the city has no business massively, militarily enforcing an exaggerated No-Protest Zone in the name of absolute public peace, or the Mayor's Let's All Be Nice Day. Clearly, officials were freaked at the prospect of some potential local echo of last month's anti-Klan riot in Toledo, Ohio, and decided that any amount of paramilitary preparations was justified. Those terrifying chicken snakes, you know.

The official media screening, though not as spectacularly hysterical, was even less justifiable. Not only did the city clumsily eliminate perfectly legitimate documentary filmmakers and political bloggers with its arbitrarily imposed credential standards, it excluded local cable access (formerly ACTV, now Public Access Community Television) reporters who are regular, independent news producers on the city's own channels – they're even indirectly sponsored by the city itself. Moreover, the PIO's office dishonestly jacked around with these folks until the last possible minute – misleading them into believing things could be worked out, and then denying credentials when it was too late to appeal. That was gratuitous insult added to injury.

Since when does the city of Austin arrogate to itself the right to determine how many reporters a media outlet is allowed to assign to a public story? We now have our city manager to thank for the wretched spectacle of a small, officially approved group of designated newspeople taking dictation, on the doorstep of Austin's own City Hall, from a coddled collection of racist and homophobic thugs.


Official Indigestion

The city publicly continues to insist its media screening process was made necessary by "security" concerns, akin to the (completely distinct) privacy concerns of the hurricane evacuees. That is pure-dee bullshit. This process was institutionally content-determined, an explicit attempt by city officials to decide who is fit to be a "professional" reporter. The city itself has admitted it. Last week, Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza told Jo Clifton of In Fact Daily, "We wanted to make sure that we had experienced, professional individuals in a situation where they could objectively report.

"When you're asking someone that has completely different moral values than you and they give you an answer that makes you sick to your stomach, then you just report it as it is. And somebody who is not trained may in fact respond with an emotional response."

By Garza's own supposedly "objective" standards, the official response of the city of Austin to the presence of the Ku Klux Klan was inexperienced, unprofessional, unobjective, and hysterically emotional. Moreover, if those are now to be the city's real standards for credentials, I have a little list of names – beginning with an entire slate of "professional" TV reporters, local and national – who would henceforth be banned from city events.

But all that is entirely beside the point. The city of Austin has absolutely no business, nor authority, trying to determine who is, or who is not, an officially sanctioned member of the press. Not even the White House press room, which opened its loving arms to Jeff "Boy Toy" Gannon, has tried to impose this kind of nonsense. In case they haven't noticed down on Second Street – because they're too busy standing on the chairs in fear of chicken snakes – it's in the Constitution.

Mr. Garza – and please inform your boss, and the PIO, and the mayor, and the City Council – you don't get to choose. end story


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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

city governmentnews media, John Henry Faulk, city hall, Ku Klux Klan, city manager, Texas Civil Rights Project, Rudy Garza, Jo Clifton, In Fact Daily

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