Black Americans everywhere, and those who believe their lives matter, began experiencing the all too familiar emotional cocktail of grief, helplessness and rage, and the question of what to do rested on everyone’s hearts.
Many in Austin immediately drew the connection between the brutality of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis and the challenges with law enforcement we have in our own backyard. soulciti spoke with three Austinites who represent different local institutions to gather their thoughts, in the hopes of articulating our collective response and vision for the future.
Farah Muscadin, Director of Austin’s Office of Police Oversight, Chas Moore, Executive Director of the Austin Justice Coalition and Austin’s District 1 Councilwoman, Natasha Harper-Madison, shared their thoughts on where we’ve been, where we are and what things look like going forward.
Where We’ve Been
Chas Moore was quick to note that the work he does with the Austin Justice Coalition was already in full throttle at the time of Mr. Floyd’s death. He acknowledged that part of him was puzzled that none of the previous, equally appalling cases “didn’t make us want to do better.”
He likened the Floyd murder to “that last, loud blare” from an alarm clock that has been sounding. “We’ve been hitting snooze after each one, and finally, this alarm is waking people up.” Justice in the case of Mike Ramos, who was shot by Officer Christopher Taylor when he attempted to flee a group of officers, was front and center long before the Floyd murder ignited the city and the nation. The fact that Ramos’ hands were up and he was unarmed, as is the case of many recent police brutality cases, made it clear to Moore and others that there needed to be an accounting for the use of lethal force.
Farah Muscadin took the helm as the Director of the Police Monitor’s office in 2018 and quickly learned that most people had no idea the office existed, which begged the question about how serious the city was about creating a safe and neutral space in which citizens could report the behavior of police officers.
While she understood that changing police culture would take time, she immediately began the work of making the office more visible and accessible to the community and made it clear that making sure officers are held accountable for their decisions is its priority. “I can’t fix what I don’t know, so my first goal was to put the (newly named) Office of Oversight on the map and to open its door to the public.”
Because of her strengthened relationships with the city brass and a large number of organizations, she has been positioned to take an active part in monitoring the city’s response to incidents such as the killing of Mike Ramos, as well as the city’s response to the Floyd protests. “My office will be reviewing every piece of evidence in the Ramos case.”
From the cop to the DA to the Grand Jury, people of color have seen the cards stacked against them
Councilwoman Natasha Harper-Madison understands that the challenge of eradicating police brutality is great, as America’s law enforcement philosophy was historically rooted in explicit racism. The “tough on crime” philosophy that many politicians use to indicate their commitment to the safety of the communities they serve has long been equated to over-policing, aggressive tactics and extreme sentencing by Black America.
“From the cop to the DA to the Grand Jury, people of color have seen the cards stacked against them,” she said. Municipalities are often intimidated by police unions and understand that they exist to protect their members at all costs. This has resulted in influence at every level of politics, so the engagement of the community and exposure of the reality is that much more important. This is where we must focus our attention.
Where We Are
In answer to the question, “Where is our Martin Luther King?”, Moore suggests that there are a number of capable leaders in our city and across the nation. He counts himself privileged to be entrusted by many Austinites with the charge to lead the fight against corrupt and unjust law enforcement. “The problem with a single leader is that if he/ she is removed, the movement cannot continue. I’m grateful that, while I am an entrusted leader, the work is being done by all of us. It’s very much a group effort.”
The Austin Justice Coalition demanded new police leadership weeks ago in order to make way for a less lethal, better police force an vows to continue that social justice work long after the cameras are gone, the protests die down and the naysayers have moved on to another target.
Muscadin is proud of the progress being made by The Office of Police Oversight, which once only logged a few dozen complaints a year. Now, it receives more than that in a single quarter and can also file them independently. For the first time in recent memory, the office is being invited to meet with a variety of local organizations and is being asked to come to the aid of communities in distress.
Her staff is committed to following the complaint through the process, making policy and disciplinary recommendations, and making sure that the complainant is made aware of the outcome. That follow-up was not consistently occurring before. In addition, they monitor the trends involving repeat behaviors and/or officers in order to influence department policy.
One of the most important considerations for anyone choosing to protest is to have an agenda according to Harper-Madison. “What do you want to come out of this?” is a question that should be clear in the mind of anyone engaging in protest work. “There is an art to protesting.”
Also, while it is important to point out that some of the so-called “agitators” involved in the local protests may have come from elsewhere, Councilwoman Harper-Madison cautions against the tendency to “other” the destructive elements. The effort to dissociate from all of those who sought to undermine the objective of the protest “feels like an attempt to negate our responsibility,” she stated. “Once you decide it is not your problem, you don’t have to talk about it. It’s time to talk about the homegrown white supremacists, anarchists, and others disenchanted with local government who showed up at the rally. They are our problem too.”
Where are We Going?
For the Austin Justice Coalition, first and foremost is the removal of the current leadership of the Austin Police Department, starting with Chief Brian Manley. “[Manley] does not possess the leadership skills and cultural competency to take this police department where it needs to go,” Moore said. The Department cannot operate the way it historically has and the transformation it needs requires a radical creativity it does not possess.” He encourages members of Austin’s black and brown community to join forces with organizations like his own, support local leadership and hold them accountable for the work that they do.
If you can only feel tall when someone else is on their knees, then you have a serious problem
As for those who seek to be allies, Moore said simply: “Listen.” He added that much of the work for white Americans is internal and cannot be legislated or done by anyone other than the individual desiring to be a better person. He cosigned Toni Morrison’s assertion that “If you can only feel tall when someone else is on their knees, then you have a serious problem.”
Farah Muscadin has a full vision for the Office of Police Oversight. Having accomplished the goal of more transparency and accessibility, she looks forward to expanding the research arm of the office. Particularly, she wants to follow up on the previous racial profiling reporting with specific data by sector of the city and include audits of police body cameras and uses of force.
Further, she looks forward to more opportunities to provide guidance to the department, such as the recommendation that officers stop using the phrase, “Stop resisting!”, and instead provide specific, reasonable commands that citizens can follow and refrain from cursing at citizens, which oftentimes unnecessarily escalates interactions.
Despite the emotional toll the back-to-back deaths of unarmed black men have had on the city and the work she does to help lead it, Councilwoman Harper- Madison is optimistic. While she would never have wished this level of violence and destruction on America’s cities, she believes that they have helped expose issues that have existed for so long. She hopes it will be easier to speak to these issues and know that she is not asking anyone to simply take her word for it.
“It’s time to find out where the babies are coming from.” She was referring to an old parable in which dead babies were mysteriously showing up on a riverbank and being lifted out one at a time. After a time, a wise man suggested that the people stop just carrying away corpses, but go up to the top of the hill and look to see where the babies were coming from. Likewise, she calls upon local, state, and federal entities to do the work to determine the root cause of this senseless loss of life so that it can be effectively dealt with.
Get your knee off our necks
Since soulciti spoke with these local representatives, George Floyd was memorialized in Minneapolis in a service led by Attorney Benjamin Crump and Rev. Al Sharpton. Crump quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., saying “He who accepts evil without protesting against it, is really like cooperating with it.”
Sharpton eulogized Floyd and ended his impassioned message by saying, “What happened to George Floyd happens everywhere. It’s time to stand up and say ‘Get your knee off our necks.’” Sharpton said. Later that evening, scores of local citizens called into the city council meeting demanding that Chief Manley be fired, that APD be defunded, and that the city officially address systemic racism.
For many, things feel different this time. The struggle continues, but it just may have made a turn for the better.
On Monday, June 8th, City Council announced a slate of reforms designed to overhaul the Austin Police Department. A vote to approve the measures is scheduled for the June 11th City Council meeting.