Austin At Large: Unsafe Together
The highway before us is littered with risks, but it’s the only way to go
I write about I-35 a lot. That's partly because it's my neighbor, having lived (in Swede Hill) and worked (at the Chronicle) right next to it for more than 25 years. I was even part of the rag-tag gang of do-gooders who brought you what y'all now fondly call the Brontosaurus Bridge. But until Saturday, I had never walked on I-35 – crossing over the barrier between poor and rich, Black (and brown) and white that it has long been, to which those dinosaur bones were our small response. (They're supposed to be stitches, y'all! Binding Austin's wounds.)
Walking on I-35, made into a big Healthy Street by peaceful demonstrators, turned me into a threat to Austin's safety, according to our police chief. That's why his forces responded with tear gas and "less lethal impact munitions" that nearly killed several people. He feels bad about that outcome, but what the fuck did he think was going to happen?
Yes, Austin police did not themselves riot like we have see elsewhere on our TVs – ugly, fat white men who should really take a long look in the mirror before they get mad at being called "pigs," wilding out as Frank Rizzo and Richard Daley and Sam Yorty look on from heaven and President Apesh*t holds the Bible upside down. There are some APD officers who fit that bill; there used to be more. But a lot of the cops tasked with restoring Order in our streets are young, and new, and ill-trained, and you can tell they are scared. They are just as unsafe as we are under the circumstances.
Do Nothing. Try It.
It seems to really still boggle some people's minds when I tell them that doing nothing is always an option, and yes, it was an option available to APD on Saturday. I can't speak for everybody in every crowd of protesters Downtown, but there was nobody I saw either on the highway or at ground level who was in a position, or displayed any intention, to do any real damage. Inconvenience drivers? Sure, that's why they call it "disobedience," the means by which it sends a message. But let's be real – how often is I-35 traffic at a standstill on the Brontosaurus Bridge?
And how often do crowds of unruly people – some of whom are armed with more lethal munitions than stray rocks, water bottles, and spray paint – roam the streets around APD headquarters? Every fucking weekend, or at least they did in the old days before COVID-19. We do not need police to performatively kneel along with the protesters and try to discharge their power and privilege and guilt to make us safer. We need them to simply not do anything other than protect people – all people – from actual harm. Yes, there were people spoiling for a fight. Yes, some of them said nasty things about police. So what? They are big boys and girls. They could have just put up with it. Instead, they became their own threat to our safety.
By Tuesday night, the cops guarding APD had gotten with the program, bringing the protesters within their lines when some fools in pickup trucks decided to maybe drive into the crowd, two blocks from where four people died that way six years ago. It's a start. Today (Thursday), the City Council is going to hear a lot more about what happened, what should have happened, and what the city should do about it now.
It’s a Damn Shame, Really
My own council member, and friend and name-cousin, Natasha Harper-Madison will be there and will listen, but I wish she didn't have to. I wish we had an alternate Black council member to go in her place, so she can breathe and maybe sleep. No, scratch that. I wish we didn't feel the need to "defer" to a Black council member whom we expect to carry all this water. We can do it ourselves. (In general, be very careful right now before you ask your Black friends to do anything, or to tell you what to do. You need to just do it. Or, as noted, doing nothing is OK.)
What I just described as the approach APD could have brought to the streets on Saturday is not super-secret tactical knowledge. Nor does it require enhanced sensitivity to the realities of Black Austinites, though that would be a good thing and the start of real anti-racism. Nor does it require a Truth and Reconciliation Commission or an Austin-style endless stakeholder process. It just requires common sense and a notion of shared humanity. The fact that we not only can't assume APD officers will have those things but know they are specifically told not to have those things to better play the role of occupying forces is, like Natasha says, a damn shame.
Everyone's a liberal until they get mugged, goes the old saw from the urban affairs discourse of my parents' generation. Yet our Black neighbors especially – and our Latinx and AAPI and multiracial and LGBTQIA and Muslim and Jewish and all the rest of our "minority" friends and neighbors – get mugged all the time, by criminals and by the authorities, a lot more than plain old white people, and they remain the champions and exponents of progressive values that the rest of Austin has to be shamed into holding. It shouldn't be that hard.
When I helped create the Brontosaurus Bridge, the hill above it on the Eastside was still empty. Now it's full of luxury condos, from which I saw a lot of young white people watching the protests below, some as they lounged on the spa deck. As they watched the crowds being dispersed by riot-armed APD, a 16-year-old kid on the side of the hill on which they live got hit in the head by a "less lethal" bullet. He's still in the hospital, but he'll survive. I hope we all do. The highway ahead is littered with risks, but it's the only way to go.