Guest Editorial from – Shane Johnson, Chas Moore, Janis Bookout
This op-ed was written with contributions from Fatima Mann, Angelica Erazo, Ashely Gordon, MEASURE.
December 13th, 2017 was a historic night for Austin. Thanks to the hard work of many community leaders, a diverse array of over 200 community members showed up to powerfully advocate for a new vision of public safety, starting with the rejection of the proposed police contract. At issue was community opposition to the proposed police contract for its lack of real reform, including giving officers accused of misconduct unfair access to evidence and prohibiting independent investigations.
At the end of the night’s special meeting, City Council voted unanimously to reject the contract in the hopes of going back to negotiation. Since then, media coverage of the topic has consisted primarily of simply repeating the grievances with this vote espoused by the Austin Police Association (APA). Therefore, we believe that a community perspective of the December 13th special meeting on the police contract and its aftermath must be put forth.
Articles like the Austin Chronicle’s, “A Bitter Pill: APD begins life under Chapter 143,” do not take into account the viewpoints of many community stakeholders involved in the December 13th meeting. The untold story of an unprecedented outpouring of support in response to calls from communities of color for real accountability in our policing system has yet to be fully expressed.
One could argue that before that night, while plenty of civic leaders frequently talked about showing up for communities of color, a.k.a solidarity, on issues of institutional discrimination, that intention had never been fully realized.
“You’ve heard from an amazing cross-section of this community,” said Chris Harris, data analyst and campaigns coordinator for Grassroots Leadership, “representing not just criminal justice advocates, but people that work in public health, [mental] health, academia, [sic] legal, civil society, in environmental issues, all coming to you with one clear message, which is we must vote down this contract, and we must begin to rethink public safety in this town in a new way.”
“I [sic] never… saw this a day in my life where black, blue, green people come together to stand up,” said Dominique Alexander, president and founder of Next Generation Network. This is the kind of diverse civic involvement that Mayor Steve Adler’s task force on institutional racism was designed to empower, but civic leaders are who made it happen.
We should celebrate our civic leaders who step up by listening to their constituents. More importantly, we must celebrate the community leaders who won the support of Council with unprecedented community participation in the December 13th meeting and the countless hours they put in that built upon decades of work, which in turn has built upon centuries of labor. This extensive organizing framed the meeting and will continue well afterward.
Leaders like Njera Keith, founder of Black Sovereign Nation, have unflinchingly demanded that the voices of the most impacted people be heard. At the meeting she said, “I wonder if this Council knows how traumatizing it is for black and brown folks to come down here over and over to beg for their lives. The people who came here tonight are demanding that you acknowledge your constituents and eliminate a negotiation process that does not include them. We are not comfortable with the City of Austin and the Austin Police Association sitting at a table and casually discussing what for us are matters of life and death.”
There is no question that the views expressed that night were passionate, even uncomfortably challenging for some. However, the only way we can transform into a more equitable society is to listen to the voices of the people most impacted by societal injustices—even if those voices are critical or angry. Because, as Fatima Mann, the executive director of Counter Balance: ATX, stated, “The impacted community, the people who are telling you that they’ve been damaged… we [provide the] data.”
So we thank City Council for staying till 11:30pm to hear each one. This is a significant step toward Austin’s elected leadership living up to our city’s progressive branding.
The predominant narrative in the media, on the other hand, seems to be that Council members had not considered the consequences of their decision. To suggest that City Council is now trying to “save face,” is misleading at best. Working for social change and telling the truth is rarely easy and is bound to rattle some cages. We want to remind everyone that the impacts of the December 13th meeting are yet to be determined.
Additionally, this narrative not only belittles Council—who spent innumerable hours meeting with Austin Police Association (APA) and Austin Police Department (APD) staff, listening to community leaders, and taking in constituent feedback—but also reinforces the perception that we should settle for a small concession, rather than enact change that actually works. Settling for the status quo to avoid conflict is a justification that has been handed down to communities of color for generations.
We are proud of and inspired by City Council’s willingness to take a political risk and work toward real change in response to the overwhelming demand from the community. City Council did its job—they reflected the enormous array of concerns of their constituents, including more than 20 community organizations who came out on December 13th.
Although critics might say so, this is not an issue to be dismissed as reactionary. Cassandra Champion, staff attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) stated at the December 13th meeting, “In the five years I’ve been [at TCRP], we have received countless calls from individuals who have claims… against officers for alleged misconduct. So we know that it’s not just a problem that a few local activists have projected.”
For months of negotiations, APA willfully neglected the community’s calls for real accountability, which would benefit not only the broader community but our officers as well by making them more effective and safe. We must never take our eyes off of making our policing system more equitable.
Even though this kind of reform may be new to Austin, it is not unprecedented. San Francisco, Oakland, and Dallas are examples of truly progressive policing programs:
- Dallas’ approach is reducing use of use of force and officer-involved shootings.
- San Francisco has this in its mission statement – “The San Francisco Police Department upholds community policing as the cornerstone of its operational philosophy. The Department’s mission is to protect life and property and work closely with the community by forming partnerships to prevent crime, reduce the fear of crime, apprehend those who commit crimes, and provide a safe environment.”
- In addition to having a strong citizen oversight board, the Oakland Police Department recently worked with a Stanford University study evaluating police body cams to inform their training of officers.
Taking steps towards measures like these is not bitter pill—it is a pivotal opportunity for Austin to become a real progressive city like the one it imagines itself as and promotes itself to be.
Reportedly, Ken Casaday, president of the APA, has said that the time under 143 “might serve as a much-needed cooling-off period for everyone involved.” While mediation might be advisable, we do not need a cooling-off period. We need transparency and performance-based accountability now, not later. This is Austin’s opportunity to lead the way in police reform. As Dr. Kevin Michael Foster, professor of African and African Diaspora Studies, said, “Meet and confer is broken. It pits police against the city; it pits doing the right thing in exchange for benefits.”
Media coverage has also promoted Casaday’s idea that the APA bargaining teams were “caught off guard,” by Council’s opposition to the cost and the proposed accountability measures in the proposed contract. But if they were, it resulted from neglecting the community throughout the negotiation process. City negotiators included a disproportionate number of ex-Police Association staff—yet that fact has received almost no news coverage.
Meanwhile, KVUE and other outlets’ coverage that quoted Austin NAACP President Nelson Linder saying, “This is their day in the sun… and they haven’t done very well,” about community engagement that led to Council’s ‘no’ vote, shows an ostensible divide among the community about this issue. But solely featuring this representation of Linder’s viewpoint, rather than giving a full representation of the community voices involved, is misleading.
While we celebrate Linder’s long-standing service to the community, he was by his own choice, not heavily engaged in this particular phase of the process. As a result, his perspective unfortunately does not represent the views of the broader community that advocated against approving the contract that night. Linder and Chas Moore, executive director of Austin Justice Coalition, are now working more closely together on this issue.
Unlike some coverage has suggested, City Council’s vote was not just about the money. To suggest as much obfuscates the role community voices played in influencing the decision. The bottom line – if we are going to spend $82.5 million, let’s make sure that the contract reflects the needs of the community that police officers have sworn to serve and protect. Then such objections can be worked out on the front end, rather than having to be aired more dramatically in a public forum.
Media coverage has largely neglected the fact that the community specifically advocated against approving the contract because of its limits on real accountability. Any coverage that suggests the end of the police contract will cause us to lose accountability over APD, generally by focusing solely on the loss of the Office of Police Monitor and Citizen Review Panel, is specious. Suggestions like this misconstrue the truth of how we now have a wide swath of new accountability options available and, frankly, condescends the hundreds of community leaders who knew a substantial change to, or rejection of, that contract was necessary to implement real reform.
To that end, local research and public education nonprofit organization MEASURE, has begun working on a report that analyzes the dollars and cents of the contract. MEASURE aims to add this research-based empirical data analysis to the negotiation process in order to develop a fair and equitable contract. As articulated by MEASURE’s President Meme Styles, “It is MEASURE’s position that the peaceful, respectful, and organized policing of Austin relies on a collective bargaining agreement that is both fair and practical for the parties involved and all impacted stakeholders.” This report will be published in March. We need this kind of research, as well as a real seat at the table for the impacted communities.
Right now, we are closing in on Martin Luther King Day, celebrating one of our great civil rights leaders for the change he helped envision and impel. Dr. King was a strong advocate for listening to the voices of impacted communities. On December 13th, the voices of the community rang out clearly and powerfully, with an expression of solidarity that closely followed many of Dr. King‘s core principles. On the eve of this celebration, we ask that everyone on both sides of the contract issue join us in dreaming of an Austin in which our community leaders are welcomed to partner with APA and APD in creating an equitable system that includes all of our citizens. In the words of Dr. King, “The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy of brotherhood, the normalcy of true peace, the normalcy of justice.”
Monday’s march will convene at 9am at the statue of Martin Luther King on the East Mall, UT Campus, proceed to the Capitol and end at Huston-Tillotson University. Join us.
Listed here are just a few of the community leaders, groups, and allies who spoke in support of Austin’s communities of color:
Chas Moore, Co-founder and Executive Director of Austin Justice Coalition
Dr. Kevin Michael Foster, Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies
Chris Harris, Data Analyst & Campaigns Coordinator for Grassroots Leadership
Njera Keith, Founder of Black Sovereign Nation
Fatima Mann, Executive Director of Counter Balance: ATX, Co-founder of AJC
Sam Sinyangwe, Co-founder and Data Analyst, Campaign Zero
DeRay McKesson, Co-founder of Campaign Zero
Cluren Williams, brother of Lawrence Parrish
Dominique Alexander, President and Founder of Next Generation Network
Gil Starkey, Co-founder, Co-founder and Member of Board of Directors, 350 Austin
Shane Johnson, member, Board of Directors of Indivisible Austin, ATXEJ, and AJC
Cassandra Champion, staff attorney for Texas Civil Rights Project
Mandy Blott, PhD, psychologist and member of Austin Justice Coalition (AJC)
Roy Waley, Conservation Chair and speaking on behalf of the Austin Sierra Club
Kolby Duhan, Austin Young Democrats
Rachel Manning, social worker and member, Undoing White Supremacy Austin
Kathryn Bedecarre, doctoral candidate, African and African Diaspora Studies
Janis Bookout, 2020 or Bust Austin
Jenn Ramos, Austin Young Democrats
Vincent Harding, Chair of Travis County Democratic Party
Bob Hendrix, member, 350 Austin, Austin Sierra Club, and ATXEJ
Susan Lippman, member, Wildflower Church’s WildEarth Climate Action Team
Kathy Mitchell, staff member of Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, member of AJC
Please note – editorials and sponsored posts are written by guest writers to inform and educate the community on a variety of different viewpoints, as well as to share information about local eco-friendly businesses and organizations. However, they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Austin EcoNetwork.