Point Austin: What’s Past and What’s Present
Capitol events provide a snapshot of current predicaments
Saturday morning outside the Capitol, Austin was treated to a living diorama of Texas history and of things to come. A large crowd of officials and visitors celebrated the unveiling of the African American History Memorial, a project years in development and strongly supported by one of those in attendance, longtime state House member and now Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, as well as his colleagues from the Legislative Black Caucus. The memorial, centered on Juneteenth and emancipation, reaches back to the 1500s, through slavery, the Civil War, and into contemporary life, and takes its place among the gathering statuary (including Confederate memorials) that together represent an ongoing debate about the meaning of Texas history.
Simultaneously, a small rally of "White Lives Matter" protesters gathered outside the Capitol grounds – part of a national event that unhappily coincided with the nearby unveiling – and likely uncomprehending that the Capitol (like the UT-Austin Main Building) faces South for historical "Only White Lives Matter" reasons. The WLM contingent, some openly armed with long guns, were soon surrounded by hundreds of counter-protesters who made it abundantly clear that the racist demo was unwelcome. Among that larger, nonviolent group was a handful of masked, self-styled revolutionaries, also armed, in a mirror image of those they came to denounce (and if possible, attack).
"Open carry" in Texas is bearing its inevitable fruit – as it did in the July massacre of police in Dallas – and Saturday it was left to state troopers, some on horseback, to separate the protests, no doubt hoping that the full-bore idiots on either side would stick to brandishing rather than using their weapons. One needn't be a police enthusiast to empathize with the cops, and to wonder if this is now our fully polarized American future: Gun-fetishists on one side facing off against gun-fetishists on the other, and in the middle, a line of cops representing what's left of the public interest. Capitol, monument, protest and counter-protest: an allegorical tableau, in the shadow of always complicated and contradictory U.S. history, never lacking for either heroism or brutality.
Police are on the Austin mind more than usual, not only because of dramatic scenes like these but because of the recent decision by Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo to take the same job in Houston. Acevedo's move was probably inevitable, not only because he was repeatedly recruited by larger cities but because it's unusual for a big-city chief to remain in his position as long as the near-decade of Acevedo's tenure. While Acevedo's term has not been without controversy, in my more than 30 years of residence he's easily been the best person in the job. He's been much more proactive and outgoing than his predecessors, and he's done a lot to change the APD culture to a more community-engaged, progressive model. He's been outspoken on matters of gun control (not an easy police position in Texas), and he's honestly engaged public debate on racial discrimination and police violence. Has he resolved all those problems? Of course not – the belated revelation of the brutal Breaion King arrest, and the recently leaked recording of the chief berating his staff for their failures in these regards, confirm that APD still has a long way to go. But Acevedo has not ignored nor minimized those problems, and has been a major resource in seeking solutions.
Indeed, his effectiveness as a police advocate can be seen as a complicating factor in a much broader city problem: the burden of the APD budget on all other city services. Austinites routinely cite public safety in general and police in particular as their highest spending priorities, but they also increasingly object to the rising property taxes that underwrite public safety (now consuming more than 70% of the operating budget). And when charming, persuasive Acevedo annually presented to the City Council the pressing needs of APD – from staffing, to helicopters, to body cameras – it was and remains extremely difficult for council members to say no. That's inevitably made it more difficult for CMs who instead advocate more funding for basic social services, especially for young people – the kinds of programs that mean long-term reduction in crime, eventually reducing the need for more police.
Hard to Replace
That contradiction is not going away under interim Chief Brian Manley or his successor, and I don't envy the next permanent city manager – subject of yet another nationwide personnel search – the job of finding Acevedo's permanent replacement. Occasionally a lightning rod for criticism, Acevedo has visibly done his best to sustain and improve the quality of Austin policing, and especially with an understanding of the increasingly diverse city Austin has become. We owe him sincere and generous thanks. And until we stop asking police to be the first responders to every social problem that our other public institutions have failed to address, we'll need to hire another APD chief who can bring Acevedo-like energy and insight to the job.