Austin at Large: People, Get Ready
We can all be responsible Austinites – now that we know what that requires
Again, we ride into a new week of local news on a train pulled by two different engines, down the same track, the wrong way. The snarling old workhorse that is right-wing nihilism and narcissism is forcing Austin to reopen, before we should or want to, during a COVID-19 pandemic that is not over. And the nasty old diesel rig that is brutal and predatory "justice" forces us to again ask why an Austinite is dead, after an encounter with police, who should be alive.
Sadly, this train seldom runs late. But we have better, stronger engines to couple up to the ass end of this train, to pull us caboose-first out of the ruts and into the light. To be precise, we are those engines. By design and by circumstance, we know we have the power to make the next right things happen now. We can and will restore a safe and equitable economy, and we can and will regain our communal ability to police ourselves in peace. We can all be responsible Austinites in the way we must at this peak pressure point in our contemporary crises. We now know and can see what that requires.
Give Us Liberty AND Death?
Let's start with our masks on. As of May 1, most of the hard language in Austin and Travis County's local "stay home, work safe" orders will become soft. You will not be required to wear that mask in public. You can go to the movies or to Chili's, or at least 25% of you can under the state's Open Texas occupancy guidelines. You can play golf. You can once again exercise your freedoms and liberties to ... get sick and die, or infect others, and recharge COVID-19's batteries so it can take another crack at filling up the ICUs and knocking our health care system down to the ground.
This is not to devalue the thought and care Greg Abbott and his team of rich white Republicans (yes, including the doctors) have taken with this strategy. Like I said last week, he knows what the stakes are. He is responding to the loutish Trumpian demands of his party, but he also knows that the Texas he is proud to rule – one that tends to get stuff done and adapt as it needs to, to welcome newcomers without too much fuss, to be fertile ground for Democrats in the cities and on the border – will break apart should COVID-19 take its toll here, and it will be entirely on him.
It feels unlikely as I write that Abbott or his adversaries – local leaders like Steve Adler and Sarah Eckhardt – want to stage a Fox News-friendly battle royale over their conflicting guidelines. But we have made clear – not just official Austin, but all of us – that we will not do what we don't want to. Our businesses will not reopen just because Abbott says they will, and we will not return to them just because he says we should.
Crucially, Abbott, who also lives in Austin, has said we won't be forced to. Anybody who provokes a confrontation over this – as U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr has signaled he might – is explicitly going off-script in Texas. Even the state's GOP elite would rather that we, and our loved ones working on the economic front lines that make those elite lives possible, not sicken and die. Austin has responded to being "liberated" by the state before (for example, the bag ban) by continuing to do what we've come to see as the right thing. Here, we can and must do that with lives in the balance.
Really, Nobody Needs to Die
The Austin Police Department is in a harder place. Mike Ramos is dead after an encounter, in which the facts available to all, right now, create an obvious appearance of culpability for the officers involved. None of the facts that are "known unknowns" at this point – stuff like the body camera footage – would be guaranteed to change that once they are revealed. There's as of yet no easily accessible counter-narrative that, if confirmed, would let APD off the hook.
After a couple dozen painful and controversial officer-involved deaths and brutalizations over my three decades in town, the department, and the city through its Office of Police Oversight, and the Travis County D.A.'s Civil Rights Unit, may finally in 2020 possess the tools and procedures that make an authentic and ethical investigation possible in this case. More importantly, we have as a community broken the glass that's separated the cops from accountability through those decades of system failures.
The department that's in the hot spotlight now is the same feckless, broken APD depicted in the Tatum report just one Friday before, one whose leaders tacitly admit they covered up and blew off the toxic racism, one whose veterans have no hope at all that things can change for the better. So now, everything up to and including firing the chief is on the table. Nobody wants to hear the weak and tired heroizing canards and unearned white privilege of the police union, of the cop-loving business elite, or of the media that's for decades plumped for a pro-police political centrism that is currently favored by exactly zero members of the City Council.
Just as Abbott knows with COVID, everybody – the police chief and the mayor and the D.A. and you and me – knows the stakes here as well. The disasters we risk if we handle the Ramos encounter the wrong way are far scarier than the pain we may feel if we handle it the right way. So we know what our responsibilities as Austinites are here. It's up to us to do this. People, get ready, there's a train a-coming.