Point Austin: Knee Jerks

Quick! Let's jump to conclusions!

Point Austin
Here we go again.

In another spasm of polarizing Austin politics, the city is emotionally and rhetorically split along predictable lines, as citizens take extreme positions on flash-point public issues and lob grenades from either side. Currently, one of the debates – the fatal police shooting of Kevin Brown – is a wrenching matter of life and death. The other headline matter is the recent city loan for Las Manitas Avenue Cafe, not nearly so dire but surprisingly evoking similarly strong public responses (although for significantly different reasons). But what both controversies have oddly in common is the stubborn refusal of those staking out their positions even to consider the actual facts of the matter at hand.

First, Las Manitas. A year ago, there was a broad public outcry when it was announced that Las Manitas, a 25-year Austin institution, and several other small businesses (including an innovative day-care center sponsored by the restaurant) would be displaced by a $100 million Marriott hotel complex. "I do know this," commented Liveable City's Jim Walker at the time. "What Las Manitas has given to Austin over the last 25 years is worth much, much more than $100 million." With virtually no public opposition at the time, the city embarked on a yearlong effort to craft a solution that would preserve the restaurant and support its Downtown relocation. Last week the City Council announced the culmination of that effort, a $750,000 partly forgivable loan from development-based fees raised directly from the very projects that are transforming that part of Downtown and displacing businesses like this legendary restaurant.

Read it here: Congratulations, City Council and city of Austin.

But thanks to a tsk-tsking editorial in the Statesman (duly echoed by John "King of the Know Nothings" Kelso) and a resolutely ignorant campaign on talk radio, you would have thought the council had decided to underwrite Osama bin Laden's family falafel shop. At this writing, this crabs-in-a-basket campaign – fueled by yet another disappointed-parent Statesman editorial this week – has yet to subside. One need only visit the Chronicle online forums, or the similar Statesman outlets, to hear the keyboards feverishly pounding. (It's always amusing to hear loyal denizens of two of the most thoroughly state-sponsored and -subsidized industries – radio/TV and computers – howl in outrage at "taxpayer giveaways". They should know.)

I won't rehearse the arguments here, which we've reported for the past year, but suggest all interested read Katherine Gregor's eloquent "Five Good Reasons Las Manitas Deserves a City Loan," posted last week on Chronic (austinchronicle.com/chronic) and explaining in detail why the loan is good public policy. Most notable about the negative responses to Gregor's piece is that not a one bothers to engage the actual arguments Gregor makes or the related amplifications offered last week by Mayor Will Wynn. (Notably ignored by opponents is that Marriott needs the cooperation of the block's property owners, including Las Manitas' Perez sisters, if the hotel project is to proceed.)

There are reasonable arguments to be made against the Las Manitas loan, and Council Members Sheryl Cole and Lee Leffingwell articulated some of them last week, unsuccessfully – but that's not what you'll see here. It's a giveaway, by God, and nobody's gonna let that crab outta this here basket!

A Workable Peace

The police shooting of Kevin Brown, the fourth in five years, is a much more troubling controversy. As Jordan Smith recounts in "Unsuspended Judgments" this week (p.30), we still don't know precisely what happened, although the implacable reality is that whatever the circumstances, another young person has died at the hands of the Austin Police (that is, by our common authority). Brown follows Sophia King (2002), Jesse Lee Owens (2003), and Daniel Rocha (2005). Whatever the specific cause of this particular tragic death, as a community, we have to work still harder to get to the bottom of the larger causes – social, economic, racial – that set these tragedies in terrible motion. At a minimum, we have to find a way to reduce the circumstances in which police officers become first responders to every mental-health crisis or neighborhood social conflict, especially when they haven't been trained or equipped to resolve those problems.

In the present case, a county-line-style, after-hours, cut-and-shoot club has been plunked down in the middle of a residential neighborhood, and the city and the police have been trying, in vain, for months to establish some kind of workable peace. The staff of that club expects the police, working overtime in the middle of the night, to control the club's rowdier patrons – including, when necessary, disarming them of concealed weapons. Yet when the inevitable tragedy occurs, the club owner has the astonishing gall to accuse the police of "cold-blooded murder."

Even more troubling is the abrupt and radical polarization of the public discussion – long before any of us can be remotely certain what actually happened in the early morning hours of June 3. On the same talk shows, in the letters columns, on blogs and postings, or during the current Austin Police Department chief candidate forums, there is little patience and less middle ground. Kevin Brown is either lamented as a martyred innocent or condemned as an unmitigated thug; Officer Michael Olsen is either celebrated as a noble hero or excoriated as a premeditating murderer. These caricatures, founded in almost complete and mutual ignorance, have essentially nothing to do with what happened when Brown was killed and say even less about what we must do to prevent the next killing.

We need to wait, listen, and consider well the mixed precedents. Sophia King's death was properly ruled a justifiable use of force, although the broader and deeper implications of her untreated mental illness (not a police matter) remain mostly unaddressed. Daniel Rocha's shooting was shown to be unjustified, and the officer who panicked and killed him was justifiably terminated. The Jesse Owens shooting was almost certainly unjustified and wrong, the proper verdict frustrated, and the only positive outcome has been stricter APD training and supervision. None of these incidents ended happily; neither were they resolved in ways that justify the currently polarized public debate over last week's shooting.

The untimely death of Kevin Brown has its own particular circumstances, and the ongoing investigations should be completed before we can come to any conclusions about what went wrong and why. And even when we learn what happened June 3 – whatever the specific, circumstantial outcome – we will not be much closer to knowing how to prevent this kind of outrage from happening again.

For that to happen, we need to be able to talk to one another. end story

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Austin city government, Kevin Brown, Las Manitas, Jim Walker, Sophia King, Daniel Rocha, Jessie Owens

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