Point Austin: Astroturf and Grass
Top-down and bottom-up demos in town this week
Full disclosure: Since the Chronicle goes to press Wednesday night, my column deadline precedes the Downtown rallies sponsored by the GOP and heavily promoted by Fox TV, so I won't get to hear Gov. Rick Perry deliver his ringing denunciation of the federal stimulus money that's about to bail out the state's deficit and (with any luck) keep the staggering state economy from going even further into the tank. While he's defending Texas "sovereignty" under the 10th Amendment, somebody might ask the governor why he's not demanding refusal of all of the $16.9 billion in stimulus funding earmarked for Texas – instead, only that comparatively paltry half-billion in unemployment insurance funds aimed at helping working people (while also delaying a tax triggered on businesses when state funds are exhausted). Intellectual consistency has never been Perry's strong suit (when there's a GOP primary coming up, rationality is not an option), but it seems to me if we're going to keep the feds out of our business, we need to send all their money packing back to D.C.: Texicans can't be bought! That'll show 'em!
Actually, it might be hard to keep the tea parties straight without a program. There's one at the Capitol, with a march to Lady Bird Lake (for dumping tea, of course); there's the headline event at City Hall, featuring Perry, Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams (now there's a state agency free of outside influence!); and a handful of the usual right-wing suspects. Curiously, none of these folks showed up at anti-tax protests while the Bush administration was running up the deficit, leaving that job to the poor Libertarians – who are dutifully holding their annual affair at the post office (to entertain desperate folks depositing their last-minute tax returns). Local Lib stalwart Wes Benedict complained to the Statesman, with considerable justice, that GOP leadership is just "trying to get in front of a parade."
Well, when Sean Hannity calls, only dogs hear the whistle.
It's worth reminding everybody that these "grassroots" demonstrations have not only been bullhorned by the "nonpartisan" folks at Fox, they're being underwritten and coordinated by the usual corporate suspects, the sponsors of FreedomWorks, the supposed nonpartisan think tank run by former GOP Congressman Dick Armey out of Dallas. A few years ago, reporter Bill Berkowitz took a close look at FreedomWorks, formed from the merger of predecessor right-wing Astroturf groups Citizens for a Sound Economy and Empower America. Documents previously leaked to The Washington Post reflected that the lion's share of millions in funding for CSE came not from its "membership" – conservative mailing lists churned for donations and volunteers – but from the usual corporate suspects: "contributions of $250,000 and up from ... Allied Signal, Archer Daniels Midland, DaimlerChrysler, Emerson Electric Company, Enron, General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, Philip Morris and U.S. West (now Qwest)." Since many of those folks remain Armey's clients, the anti-taxers rallying today should be aware they are doing so on behalf of Social Security privatization, big insurance firms, tort-deformers, and the rest of the predictable big-corporate causes.
Armey's changed his address, but he hasn't changed his business model.
Message to the Mall
There was an actual grassroots demonstration in town last week of a couple of hundred Austinites joining the NAACP-sponsored Saturday morning protest at Highland Mall in response to the mall management's earlier decision to close during the Texas Relays, aimed at discouraging largely African-American crowds. Stretched out along the Airport Boulevard entryway, a line of people held signs denouncing racial discrimination and encouraging a more welcoming attitude. Among them were at least three incumbent City Council members: Sheryl Cole, Mike Martinez, and mayoral candidate Lee Leffingwell, who said he was participating because: "I think we need to send a message that this is not a racist city – it's not, it's a progressive city. [The decision to close the mall] may not have been racist in intention, but that's how it's been perceived, and we need to respond to that."
Cole has been the most proactive on the issue and has reached out to the various parties to put together a town hall meeting (Carver Museum, May 4, 6pm) to discuss the situation and to try to plan alternatives for next year. In an earlier conversation, Cole noted that this is not the best economic moment to be proposing a retail boycott – "the city is hurting enough as it is right now," she told me – and more than one observer has pointed out that troubled Highland Mall is the only mall near Northeast neighborhoods.
Perhaps partly for these reasons, the NAACP's Nelson Linder was no longer talking boycott on Saturday and going out of his way to discourage signs to that effect. He said, "We're not asking for a boycott; this is an attempt to promote education, awareness, and dialogue." He described the stalemate as essentially founded on misapprehensions about African-American young people that should be addressed with education as well as seriously undertaking programs aimed at the same group. "That doesn't mean we're abandoning legal action," he said. "We're looking at public accommodation violations and equal protection under the 14th Amendment."
But Linder said the overall emphasis of the local organization would be on reaching out to mall management, City Council, the University of Texas, and other interested parties to promote dialogue and action on racial progress. "Austin is basically a nice city," Linder said, "but good people here need to speak out more about things that are wrong. Businesses in particular are not here just to make money," he said. "Business has a social responsibility."
Highland Mall management was not responding to questions regarding the closing or its aftermath, except to justify its decision by arguing that the Austin Police Department wasn't willing to provide as many as 80 officers to provide security during the Relays. (Why not 800?) If they hope to mend fences with their customers and neighbors, they might begin by not treating them as alien invaders.