Anger, fear, suspicion and hope hung in the air as about 30 black men and women — young, old, LGBT, immigrant — met last week in a small room at an East Austin Baptist church.
Amid tears and shouts, some recounted personal stories of unlawful arrests, seizures and police stops that undergird their distrust of law enforcement. One woman, nearing 60, said she fears for her grandchildren’s lives, repeating a claim that members of the Ku Klux Klan have infiltrated local law enforcement and the federal government.
A middle-aged man insisted that there was a police officer or agent among those assembled. “It could be you,” he gestured to an older woman, temporarily silencing the room before drawing awkward laughter.
It's been more than two years since anger over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida fused three words — Black Lives Matter — into a hashtag and rallying cry that has defined a new fault line in the nation's racial politics.
An international organization has formed and boasts 26 chapters in the United States, including the Austin group whose recent meeting reflected its members' bleak outlook for black lives. The group's challenge, leaders say, is molding outrage and despair into tangible political impact.
"We're at the dawn of a new civil rights era," said Margaret Haule, founder of the Austin chapter. "Something needs to be done."
Though the next Texas legislative session is more than a year away, movement activists want to get in on the conversation early as lawmakers begin interim studies of criminal justice issues. In October, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick charged Senate committees with studying police and jail safety before the 2017 legislative session. Last week, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus announced similar directions to his chamber.
The studies, in part, reflect reactions to the July hanging death of Sandra Bland in the Waller County Jail after her arrest during a traffic stop. Questions surrounding Bland's death — and other widely reported cases of police mistreatment of blacks — have opened a door for change through which Texas Black Lives Matter activists hope to pass.
Nationwide, Black Lives Matter wants Congress to pass legislation establishing a use-of-force standard, creating a national database of killings and serious injuries by police, ending police militarization and enacting the End Racial Profiling Act of 2015.
On the state and local levels, the organization wants all police interactions recorded, police forces to look like the communities they serve and mental health professionals to be first responders in crisis situations. They also want spitting, disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace and other "harmless offenses" decriminalized.
The Austin chapter, Haule said, is pushing five policy demands that it hopes to secure statewide.
- Mandatory investigation of police officers accused of misconduct that are seen through to completion even if the officer quits, is fired or transfers to another department or agency.
- Independent bodies with subpoena power to conduct the investigations and issue recommendations to local district attorneys.
- Compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, a federal law that created standards for safety in state prisons. Texas did not comply with the law under former Gov. Rick Perry, but Gov. Greg Abbott told the U.S. Attorney General earlier this year that the state will start complying.
- Programs and policies that treat drug addiction as a public health issue instead of simply criminalizing behavior.
- Ending the use of solitary confinement in prison as punishment.
Demands for police accountability beat at the heart of the Black Lives Matter agenda — and spark some of the sharpest criticism of the group.
All jurisdictions need independent citizen review boards with power to investigate complaints against law enforcement free from conflicts of interest, Haule said.
Distrust of law enforcement runs deep in black communities where it's unclear "who's looking out for them," said Elizabeth Henneke, a policy analyst with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.
"Anyone in a community needs to have accountability with how they interact with the community," Henneke said, adding that there is a "status quo" in some communities that how people look affects their interactions with law enforcement.
A better alternative might be an independent ombudsman agency on the state level to investigate officer misconduct allegations, Henneke said.
The Office of the Independent Ombudsman for the state juvenile justice system was created as a result of a sexual assault scandal involving youths that came to light almost 10 years ago. The state agency surveys the Texas Juvenile Justice Department and reports to the governor and the Legislature.
It works and should be an example, Henneke said.
“They took notice and created a strong and independent agency,” she said. “So we have a model, we have a plan for it.”
Independent review boards face hurdles on the local level, said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, who lamented that Houston does not have one of its own.
"We can't even get one with subpoena power," said Coleman, chairman of the House County Affairs Committee.
But police organizations see review boards as one part of Black Lives Matter's war against police officers, which on a macro level is one against the government, said Charley Wilkison, executive director of Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas. A district attorney's office should suffice when it comes to investigating police misconduct allegations, he said.
"They want permission to desecrate someone who's already been killed professionally," he said. Some critics seek vengeance against officers above and beyond their official punishment, Wilkison said, because they hate law enforcement and don't believe in their government.
Jail safety, the war on drugs and use of solitary confinement round out the chapter's primary policy agenda.
Both political parties agree that criminalizing addiction is a "failed strategy," Henneke said, and it should be approached as a public health issue.
"Incarceration does not just punish the individual, it punishes their entire family," she said. "And when these are mothers and fathers, this creates a cycle of criminal justice involvement that punishes not only the individual [but also] their families, these communities and ultimately the state, who isn't able to benefit from the workforce and the powerful attributes that these individuals could be but for their addictions."
Some changes have already been made, with new courts focusing on drug and drunken driving, treatment programs as a first option in some cases, and Medicaid covering alcoholism treatment for people already eligible for the insurance system, Coleman and state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, said.
"But we can build on that," Moody said, suggesting that sentencing in drug possession cases should be rethought, especially in the cases where offenders don't have violent criminal records. "Maybe we don't need to create those mandatory minimums in those circumstances," he said. "I hope that's something we're able to investigate during the interim."
A bone of contention for many in the criminal justice system is the effectiveness of solitary confinement. Activists fall on the side of ending its use as a means to punish prisoners.
"It's cruel and unusual punishment," Haule said.
Moody, Coleman and Henneke say it should end if used for punishment.
"The studies are overwhelming as to what that does to individuals," Henneke said, listing rotating pods and privileges as valid substitutes to get inmates to focus on taking an active role in rehabilitation. "We have effective alternatives that we know of now."
But does that mean it's going away?
"Probably not," Coleman said, "because it's used as a measure of control."
For Haule and fellow activists, the fight is not just about seeking justice for blacks but to ensure that the name of the movement holds true.
"I'm trying to amplify black lives."