Austin at Large: ARIC, Meet ALICE
Two acronyms walk into an ongoing conversation about justice and equity
This week, I've spent a lot of time with these two acronyms, enough for them to take on personalities. We've already introduced you to ARIC (think Prince Eric), the fratty, cocky yet easily frightened law enforcement "fusion center" with its network of secret spies. Then there's ALICE (played by Ellen Burstyn, or Linda Lavin, or Ann B. Davis), the working-class woman laboring on the wrong side of the chasm we abstractly call "income inequality." They should get acquainted.
We've reported throughout the summer on the Austin Regional Intelligence Center, or ARIC, which is run by the Austin Police Department and whose doings (along with other fusion centers nationwide) have been exposed in a hack known as BlueLeaks. Some of the material is mundane or already known publicly; some of it shows genuine attention to the post-9/11 mission of the fusion centers to integrate interagency intelligence about criminal or terrorist activity.
Now, the Dark Side ...
But BlueLeaks also spotlights a surprising number of cases where ARIC's analysts and the "threat liaison officers" (TLOs) who feed them info – those are the secret spies, bound by nondisclosure agreements and including civilians as well as sworn officers – wander outside of what should be bright lines protecting your civil rights. Racial profiling? Check. Unwarranted (in all senses of the term) surveillance? Yup. Viewpoint discrimination and criminalization of speech and conduct privileged by the First Amendment? You betcha. As we report this week, ARIC's alarmist alerts can end up landing people in jail, and the center's spidey-sense tingles more intensely when people say rude things about the police.
The Council's plans to reduce APD funding this fiscal year include the budget for ARIC, but the center could simply migrate to another local agency. Its skulduggery, or even its ineptitude, should not overshadow the dystopian import of its banal bureaucracy. Lots and lots of people, some of whom may be reading this now, have unknowingly ended up in an ARIC bulletin or TLO report, along with lots of private information, because someone thought they might be suspicious. Those documents have lived in ARIC's files for years and years, contrary to its own privacy policies, and may have been shared with hundreds of law enforcement agencies nationwide, including the now-rogue federal ones. And this is all considered routine.
Some of y'all are a lot more hawkish than I am about privacy as a civil right. But ARIC sums up a lot of the public's growing misgivings about the culture that has arisen among law enforcers, the shared values of CopLand. It's a culture aligned on incentives to create suspicion, threat response, and eventually violence, without enough incentives to do the opposite and not only keep but create peace. That's why right now, so many people feel a need to impose constraints on police to achieve the goals of society.
But What About ALICE?
The acronym stands for "Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed." This empirical language is more than just a destigmatized way to say "working poor." It specifically refers to those with incomes above the poverty line but below the true basic cost of living – which in Texas is about 30% of the residents, or 3 million households. (Another 1.4 million are straight-up below the poverty line.) Without owning homes or other stores of wealth, and in jobs where they may never make a living wage but are too well paid for real public assistance, ALICE is a permanent state of struggle.
The ALICE concept and project is a creation of United Way agencies across the nation and includes data on financial hardships across demographics, quantifies the true cost of living, tracks job trends, and identifies gaps in public resources. The 2020 Texas report (using 2018 data) is just out, and it is depressing even without reflecting the impact of COVID-19. As the true cost of living (including things like child care, health care, and technology) has risen and as wages have stagnated even with low unemployment, the number of ALICE households grew by nearly 1 million over a decade of "Texas Miracle."
The report and data (available at UnitedForALICE.org/Texas) merit a deeper dive, but since you read the Chronicle you're not surprised by the disconnect between the raucous triumphalism of our Red Regime and real life in the state it misrules. But what does this have to do with ARIC, you ask? Consider the message we've heard, both quietly and loudly, during our summer of protest and pursuit of de-policing: Take the money from the cops and use it to meet community needs so that we are better equipped as citizens and neighbors to mutually keep our own city safe without as much violent intervention. Many of Travis County's 185,000 households below the ALICE threshold may not support defunding, let alone abolishing, the police. But many of their challenges are addressed ineffectively, at best, by law enforcement. Rather than uncritically funding policing based on CopLand's own definition of threat – which ARIC shows us can be quite spurious – let's spend our public money more holistically, in ways that can lift more of us above the ALICE threshold and into the better quality of life that Austin claims to offer.