In Austin, a liberal bastion, protests force another reckoning with racism, segregation
Although Austin was not the only city in Texas to have protests, the death of Michael Ramos there brought out tensions that have long plagued the city, a place that is recognized for its moments of progressivism yet has deep-rooted racial biases.
Many Austin residents bask in their city’s reputation as a laid-back liberal bastion — a city of hippies and festivals that coined the motto “Keep Austin Weird” to distance itself from the surrounding state’s conservatism.
But the events of the last few days are once again forcing a reckoning with the city’s history of deep-rooted inequality and segregation. Thousands of residents have taken to the streets to protest police brutality, which they say isn’t just visible in the video of a white Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, who died in police custody, but in the actions of their local police.
And there remains an extraordinary racial gap for people of color in the state’s capital city. It’s visible in historically black East Austin, where gentrification is driving the area’s longtime residents out. And it can be seen in the overwhelmingly Latino clientele at the People’s Community Clinic, which serves 20,000 uninsured and underinsured Central Texans.
“Racial and economic justice have not been Austin’s top priorities in the past,” said Austin City Council member Greg Casar. “It’s time to live up to our branding of inclusion and solidarity.”
Looming over the anger and anguish protesters felt this weekend is also Austin’s legacy as “the blueberry in the tomato soup,” a reputation shaped by a decadeslong record of voting overwhelmingly Democratic and for a municipal government that often puts forth an agenda deemed too left-wing for the state’s Republican leadership. The City Council is liberal, has a female majority and includes several people of color, one of whom is black. Every member of Travis County state House delegation is a Democrat.
But in addition to the death of Floyd, Austin residents have expressed outrage over the death of Michael Ramos in their own backyard. Ramos, a 42-year-old black and Hispanic man, was shot and killed by police at a Southeast Austin apartment complex. Witness videos show Ramos with his hands in the air when an officer shot him with bean bag ammunition. As he got into a car and began to drive away, another officer shot and killed him.
Although Austin was not the only city in Texas to have demonstrations, the death of Ramos served as a reminder of the tensions that have long plagued the city.
“Austin is a city trying to find itself, especially as it relates to the minority community,” said state Rep. Sheryl Cole, D-Austin, who was also the first black woman elected to the City Council, in 2006.
According to the Austin Business Journal, the city welcomes an average of 100 new residents each day and has seen more proportionate growth from net migration than any other metro in the United States since 2010.
In fact, the city’s growth and job opportunities — plus the fact that he has family nearby — have kept Raul Perez in town for the better part of two decades. His parents immigrated here when he was only 8. Besides a stint at Texas A&M University, he’s called Austin home ever since.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to experience some of the growth, but at the same time it’s not a huge city like New York City,” he said. “Plus I have a dog, and there’s lots of green space.”
But Perez, 30, a recipient of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, has also identified long-standing local inequalities. At a tech company he previously worked for in the heart of downtown, only one of the company’s 200 employees was black, he said.
The city’s Democratic leadership has faced pushback for being slow or failing to address issues related to race and class disparities. Over the weekend, some looked on in disbelief at Austin Mayor Steve Adler’s relative silence compared with other big city officials in regard to the protests that rocked the state.
Adler, who was first elected in 2014, also acknowledged that “there’s a long way for Austin to go, and we have a legacy of overt racism and discrimination.”
“The killing of George Floyd comes in a growing list of names in rapid succession — Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and our own Mike Ramos,” Adler said. “Every time that list grows, there’s yet another hit on the trust of the relationship that needs to exist between people and their police.”
He added that the heightened emotions felt by residents of late is part of a “generations-long pain.” It’s the onus of the council and city leadership, he said, “to deal with the legacy and messages of our history.”
On Thursday the City Council will hold a special hearing, called by Adler, for people to discuss demands from some of the city’s black activists and policing tactics used during this weekend’s protests. But the inequalities for people of color have simmered for decades.
A long-standing east-west geographic rift shapes race and class relations. The biggest concentrations of the city’s people of color are clustered into pockets east of Interstate 35; the west side, by comparison, is mostly white. (Latinos make up 34% of Austin’s population; blacks represent 8%.)
In the early 1900s, the racial hierarchy was plain to see in Austin. While black residents had lived throughout the city in the early part of the century, a 1928 plan approved by the City Council limited where they could live — concentrating libraries, parks and schools meant to serve black residents to the city’s east side.
Now, experts say, there are struggling schools and a lack of affordable housing in the eastern enclaves, leaving some black residents to find refuge in cities farther north like Pflugerville and Georgetown.
“In terms of thinking of Austin as this blue dot in a red state, it’s symptomatic of the same kind of delusion people have about northern liberal cities versus living in the South, where racism is seen to be much more entrenched,” said Minkah Makalani, an associate professor of African and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
“It’s much easier to convince yourself you’re liberal when you’ve pushed so many black and brown people out and you don’t have to encounter and live with them,” he said.
Over the weekend, protesters engaged in back-to-back daily showings of fiery unrest in Austin, descending upon the state Capitol building and City Hall and making their way toward the highway. Police eventually fired tear gas, rubber bullets and beanbags into the crowd.
Some protesters, including Perez, who says he was pepper-sprayed as he protested alongside his German shepherd, found refuge among acquaintances who came equipped with milk to help ease the burning. Others watched in awe as businesses were broken into or vandalized.
Amanda Smallwood, who is 30 years old and white, said she moved to the city three years ago from West Virginia, hoping for a big-city feel and a town that would be accepting of her as a queer woman.
Shortly after moving here, however, she noticed that black people were “in the more segregated areas of Austin” and made a somber conclusion: “This city is for white people for the most part,” she said.
During a protest Saturday afternoon, Smallwood’s fears about the town were compounded after she witnessed a black man get arrested for “sitting peacefully on public property” while other protesters around him got off scot-free.
“Police knew why we were out there and that tensions are charged racially,” she said. “They could have set an example, but they chose submission instead of solidarity. You can see a lot of disenfranchised individuals full of rage, and they’re full of rage for a reason.”
Some people have pointed to signs of a rise in progressivism. In 2016, Austin became the first Texas city to pass a “ban the box” ordinance preventing private employers from asking potential job candidates’ criminal history before extending a conditional job offer. Two years later, the city mandated paid sick leave, becoming the first major metropolitan in the state to implement such a measure.
Yet a shift in influence and representation has been a slow one. It wasn’t until 2014 that Austin started electing council members from 10 districts — and the mayor in a citywide vote — opening the door for a more racially and ideologically diverse board. Austin had not had geographic districts in more than 100 years and was the largest city in the country without them.
Although the city created a new office of police oversight in 2018 and ended juvenile curfews in 2017, local activists have called for more wide-ranging reforms as of late, including immediately implementing training reforms to ensure cadets are adequately trained in deescalation and reassigning the current city legal team supporting public safety and bringing in fresh faces.
“There is a lot to do,” reads an April 27 letter sent by a range of Austin social justice groups to city government. “We ask that you terminate the people who are standing in the way of change and instead find people willing and eager to do this.”
In response, Manley, the police chief, acknowledged the frustration and stressed in particular that the department would be thoroughly investigating the shooting of Ramos.
“This is a trying time for our community,” Manley said. “I share your concerns, and that’s why we’re going to the extent we’re going to, to ensure that we not only conduct a thorough investigation that we always do, but that we do it in a way that fosters community trust.”
Katharine Rovinsky, a 31-year-old who protested Sunday, said she first became aware of issues with the city’s police department when she was pulled over in 2017 for failing to stop before the white line of a stop sign. When the officer asked why she was driving in that area, he casually commented that he didn’t like the city of Austin because there were “too many immigrants here,” Rovinsky remembers.
“He must’ve thought I’d be a friendly ear,” said Rovinsky, who is white.
That incident, coupled with this weekend’s events — she also recited an incident from last year when a former police assistant chief was accused of using racist language with no consequence — sparked her desire to push for a more just policing system.
“It’s pretty clear to me that there’s a widespread issue of officers not being disciplined for bad behavior,” Rovinsky said. “There’s a need for leadership to make and enforce policies, and there needs to be consequences for officers who don’t listen.”
Ashley Walker, a 31-year-old who is black, said change was needed for her young daughter, whom she doesn’t want “to have to grow in a world where she has to be afraid of going out because she can’t live while being black.”
“Hearing white protesters yell to others to get in between the police and protesters was significant because it shows they are standing alongside us and willing to help protect our cause,” she said.
Smallwood agrees. “I can’t imagine what it feels like to be a person of color surrounded by people screaming, ‘Black Lives Matter,’” Smallwood said. “To hear that so loudly at the top of everyone’s lungs? That’s what gives me hope.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University and Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chairman, have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.