Friday, July 22, 2016

Texas Noir

It’s docket call in the 331st District Court, Judge David Crain presiding. Court is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. and Judge Crain blesses us with his presence at ten minutes to 10. The sign on the front door says no drinks and no telephones allowed. The judge is carrying his coffee when he takes to the bench and he continues to sip until his cell phone begins to ring. Welcome to the Travis County criminal justice system. There are rules—but they may not apply to you.
It was interesting to watch a few weeks ago as one of the other district judges, Cliff Brown, negotiated a payment plan with a defendant. It lasted almost 10 minutes, like a session with a bank loan officer. “Can you,” the judge asked, “do $100 a month?” For some of the defendants $100 per month is a lot, they may have been stealing in the first place because they are poor. Two of the Travis County district judges have a reputation for actually throwing defendants into jail for missed payments. In that case the court doesn’t get their money either, by the way. A lot of what happens in the courtroom may depend on what the prosecutors heard while listening to the defendant’s personal telephone calls from jail, from the night before. You know, whether to go for the jugular or not. Much of the punishment can actually be financial and much of that happens before there’s even a verdict. It’s a system, more like a process than anything else, a machine that must be fed and in this county what it usually consumes are black people and Mexicans.
 Those ankle monitors that everyone seems to like, that the judge can order to show he or she has done something? Even if unnecessary—the person is not a real flight risk, or a threat—as one judge explained in chambers—the monitor costs the defendant $330 a month and he hasn’t been convicted of anything yet. The fees alone are murder and that’s before the judge levies a fine. It’s said, this is purely rumor, that the City of Austin also makes a killing on these folks, on the morning of docket call, by sending out parking wardens to ticket the cars of defendants on the streets near the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center, because the courthouse doesn’t have any parking for them—and parking enforcement knows the courts always run late. My personal favorite in the how-to-screw the poor and uneducated sweepstakes are the poor bastards who’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting for their case to be called and step outside the court, to make a call, and then go out on the grass to have that cigarette they’ve been craving—this is a smoking population—and that’s just when the judge calls their name. Bail revoked. Warrant issued.
Judge Crain doesn’t require the defendant to appear at all hearings—if they have a job or family commitments for example, as long as  their lawyer is present—you can say that much for him, more than anything else he looks bored on the bench. He’s been a judge a long time, he’s just part of the machine and at least he’s not wrapped too tight: that would be Judge Julie Kocurek of the 390th District Court who someone recently took a shot at but is now back on the bench with a bodyguard next to her—and a mouth on her. Judge Kocurek was first appointed by W when he was governor, back in the day, she was a Republican then and it’s hard to imagine anyone dealing with the stress of being a crime victim less gracefully than Her Honor.
“I need to see him! I need to see him!” she told her courtroom recently, visibly distraught at her own docket call, in between revoking bail and issuing bench warrants for people who didn’t need to be there, either. She likes to see everyone in person—apparently like it’s a test. As a South Asian defendant—a Mr. Khan—approached Kocurek’s bench one recent morning, smiling because in his country of origin apparently people smile more than do white Texans like Judge Julie, God forbid—out of fear, for example, or in the presence of power, Kocurek let fly: “What are you smiling at? Do you think this is funny?”
Walking back to his seat Mr. Khan, obviously shamed, said by way of explanation to his attorney—you could hear him in the first row of seats—“I always smile!” He was smiling as he said it. Welcome to the Travis County Courthouse where your culture can influence your outcome.
“If it’s anything involving violence . . . .” a black defense attorney explained outside Kocurek's courtroom, noting Her Honor’s recent close encounter with a nine mil—which the police are ascribing to a black male “person of interest,” the daily newspaper called him, whom the judge had threatened with prison for a non-violent offense, not that that’s an excuse, more an explanation of what a brother may have been thinking when he squeezed the trigger. What it means for defendants, especially minority defendants appearing before this wounded woman, “she’s going to send you,” the black lawyer said, as in send to prison.
Before the next question could even be asked, however, he caught himself and added, “Of course she was like that before.” Gallows humor aside, there’s a sense even among the people who work in the Travis County Courthouse, in the liberal mecca, the capital of Texas, that it’s a dysfunctional environment and a particularly punitive one if you’re poor or a member of an ethnic minority, like Mr. Khan. And which would actually include most of the people seen in our felony courts, actually. That’s probably true of all courthouses in the country but we live in a city where it’s not supposed to be like that. Austin is better than that, or so it’s said.
Of these eight felony courtrooms, five of the judges—Kocurek, Kennedy, Sage, Brown and last but not least Wil Flowers, who was the first black assistant D.A. and the first black district judge, and is officially retired but still hears criminal cases as a substitute—are of the hanging variety. And like the system they administer, they prefer Negroes and Hispanics, too. So, there’s a problem with six of the judges, if you include David Crain who is mailing it in. Kocurek is racially-challenged or unbalanced, whatever the cause, Kennedy is on a mission, Cliff Brown is an Uncle Tom and Wil Flowers is what can charitably be called an old school Negro, who made his way in the courthouse by selling out his race, too, but on a more fundamental level than Judge Brown who is merely an opportunist. Jim Coronado, the only Latino on the criminal side, was just defeated in the Democratic primary by a white female defense lawyer who didn’t like how he handled a case. He outspent her five to one, had been a judge in this community forever and still got beat.
Karen Sage, the fifth of the prosecution-minded felony judges is a garden-variety white female prosecutor, most of the big-city D.A.’s in Texas are now women and it’s hard to see how they’re any different from the men, except Sage is now on the bench doing the same thing she did in years past as an assistant D.A. under Ronnie Earle, sending niggers to prison. Even though Kennedy, Brown and Flowers as African-Americans would be presumed—wrongly—to have some kind of sympathy for the colored defendant population, it’s just not true. In the cases of Brown and Flowers they are often described as being harder on their own race than on whites. Judge Kennedy is hard on everybody. Judge Flowers was quoted a couple of years ago, speaking of race relations, he comes from the Golden Triangle, that all that’s necessary is for people to get to know each other better, which means his thinking about societal dynamics in Texas is plantation-age. To the degree “disproportional” prosecutions and punishments are the fault of the judges—they say they’re not responsible, the judges say that the courts are not the place to approach fairer outcomes for minorities in the criminal justice system, instead it’s at the time of arrest—some of the worst practices began under Judge Flowers and have continued under his successor. Another African-American defense attorney said he prefers now to practice in Dallas because the judges are not as hard on minorities. If he has to try a case in the Travis County Courthouse he prefers one of the white jurists, Judge Clemmer, the lone Republican, “because he’s fair.”
Recently for example Judge Brown seated an all-white jury in a capital murder case for an African-American defendant. Even a white judge would have thought twice. Cliff Brown could have called for another jury panel, it’s his courtroom, especially after one of the potential jurors went on at length, in front of all the other potential jurors, about why the defendant was guilty—before actually hearing the evidence. Judge Brown did not seem to mind. The local defense bar is said to be looking for an opponent for Judge Kennedy, in the next election, after she failed to inform a defendant’s attorney of a note from the jury—in a cop killing with a minority defendant. All five of these hard judges—white and black—have something else in common, besides being Democrats and wearing a robe to work. They’re former assistants to former longtime D.A. Ronnie Earle who ruled this courthouse for 30 years.
Back in the day Earle’s assistants included Wil Flowers, Rosemary Lehmberg who is present D.A., and John Dietz who recently retired as presiding judge of the civil courts. Earle’s assistants in his later years in office, called his dark period, not because of his mood but because that's when he was sending so many niggers to prison, included Cliff Brown, Karen Sage, Brenda Kennedy and Gary Cobb who was just defeated in the race to succeed Lemberg as D.A., thanks be to a merciful Allah. Brown, Kennedy, Cobb and Flowers have been responsible for some of the worst outcomes for blacks in the courthouse in our age. Racial equity in prosecutions is at the top of the list of BlackLivesMatter and other protestors, and problems with the police seem to meld seamlessly into problems with the courts, which is what’s happening in other cities too. Chicago for instance is being seen now as not just an example of racist police but of prejudice in the courts. That’s what people think and it’s kind of true but not always.
“I had no idea I would be a judge,” Brenda Kennedy told Austin Lawyer a few months ago when she took over as presiding judge from Judge Kocurek. Unlike Flowers and Brown, Kennedy seems to be hard by temperament, not because she expects white patronage in return. “When I went to work at the DA’s office I had a knack and a desire for trial work. I got to try a lot of cases and do a lot of things. And I enjoyed that. But once you try just about everything there is to try, you start looking for what’s next. I was having a discussion with my boss at the time, former District Attorney Ronnie Earle, about what my next career move should be. He was the one who encouraged me to be a judge.” Judge Kennedy is probably the single most feared jurist in the criminal courts—although she has mellowed recently, “just a little,” according to her colleagues. And this is regardless of personal experience: Brenda Kennedy had a well-reported Driving-While-Black incident a few years ago, pulled over in the wrong neighborhood somewhere out in the county. While Judge Brown who is also black was the city’s police monitor he didn’t find any substantive reason to disagree with the police union for years—when the same issues that are headlines today, killer cops and bad stops—were worse then. He’s as pro-police on the bench as he was as police monitor and as prosecutor before that, for Ronnie Earle, assigned to Wil Flowers' court. Flowers swore Cliff Brown in as a judge. 
If you walk the halls and talk to the lawyers today, only two judges on the criminal side, handling felony cases, get high ratings for fairness and hard work and neither of them, not to belabor the point, worked for Ronnie Earle. These two men are the least like their colleagues: Don Clemmer—the Republican who was appointed last year by Gov. Abbott and who invariably draws the same response from colleagues and from the bar, “He’s actually very good!” as if the fact that he’s a Republican means he couldn't work in a Democratic town. The other judge who is highly praised is David Wahlberg of the 167th District Court, who was a long-time defense attorney before running for the bench on a campaign platform of not being an ex-prosecutor like everyone else. Apparently it’s now the fashion, after Wahlberg’s success—he’s unopposed for reelection this year—two other defense lawyers just won Democratic primaries, campaigning on their experience from the defendant’s side of the courtroom. The system has been out of balance forever. Post Jim Crow the police chiefs, for example, have come and gone but the shadow of Ronnie Earle was a constant then and is still a constant now. This is the snapshot of today’s environment, the system you’re going through if you’re black or brown and you’ve been arrested by Austin police for a crime: A judge has been shot, or shot at, D.A. Rosemary Lehmberg’s legal troubles have made national news including the indictment of the Governor of Texas for alleged intimidation (one of the district judges said, by the way, his impression of the evidence in the case pointed to Perry’s guilt, but the Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed) leading to a warning from the judge who was shot, or shot at, to the governor to back off. The African-American sheriff who runs the jail and whose deputies arrested the district attorney, not that that’s important, is retiring because he cooperated with the feds on immigration enforcement, against the wishes of the community that elected him. A civil court judge was arrested for DWI on Barton Springs and prosecutors dropped the charge, something about the lab report on the blood-alcohol level. Most pertinent—more important than level of intoxication—she actually looked pretty hot in her mugshot, not that that’s important either—statistics from the state prisons indicate that of all the people being sent to Huntsville from “the liberal mecca,” Austin, Texas, about one-third are African-American in a town where the black population is lucky to scrape eight percent on a sunny day. The dreaded Republican-run Williamson County, our rustic and un-hip neighbors to the north, under departing D.A. Jana Duty has a better record, statistically, in obtaining justice for minorities than does liberal Travis County. How did that happen?
Everyone is looking for a fall guy. It’s an Austin tradition, you don’t have to solve the problem but you do need to find someone to blame it on. Police Chief Art Acevedo was called in to explain to the judges—the judges themselves are under pressure for a decreasing number of jury trials—and the D.A.’s anointed successor just got beat like a drum. In the most-highly educated and allegedly-progressive urban area in Texas, the level of drama is soap-opera high. What does that say about the quality of justice?
Former Judge Charlie Baird was mocked a few years ago when he first began to question the nature of outcomes handed out in our courthouse, the very thing that everyone is wringing their hands over now. He formally raised the issue when he ran against Rosemary Lehmberg for D.A. four years ago. Baird’s approach in obtaining justice for minorities was noted favorably in the New Yorker a few months ago, in an article that praised both Judge Baird and Gov. Perry who, when he was on the side of the angels—which may not have been as often as we all would have liked—it was often about race, in this instance involving a black defendant in Lubbock who was wrongly identified as a rapist. The guy died in prison but his name was cleared, if that means anything. Today Judge Baird says that those who wring their hands trying to square the city’s liberal reputation with the fact of disproportionate prosecutions of minorities are chasing their own tails. It’s impossible to do.
“Austin is the liberal mecca in so many areas, ” he says, citing the environment, gay rights, the arts, “everything except criminal justice.” This issue of disproportionate prosecutions for minorities has a powerful new proponent: During a brief interview at a campaign event, Margaret Moore, the Democratic nominee for D.A. said that a review of racial disparities in prosecution is “at the top of my list.” She’s another one of Ronnie Earle’s former assistants, from back in the day, when Earle was still on a mission and before he was corrupted by power. Moore has been away from the courthouse for many years, which is a good thing, working in the AG’s office with the Republicans, which is also a good thing. As her top investigator—if elected—she’s promised to hire Mike Lummus, a former president of the Austin police union and, in a more general sense, a good guy. “Good guy” is a vague description, admittedly, but may be a big plus in the present policing environment. Because it’s a mess right now in the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center. The reasons are race, class, bad practices and laziness.
If you ask the judges on the criminal side about the outcomes they’re producing, those who will discuss the issue at all report a disquiet about jailing so many minorities and sending so many to prison. But as one judge noted, “We’re not social activists.” The courts can only play the cards they’re dealt, he said, in terms of cases and defendants. This particular jurist pointed to arrest not trial as the place for correcting the system. “If I send them to prison,” said one of the hanging judges, “there’s no chance at rehabilitation. Let’s take that as a given from the start.” Which raises the obvious question: why are you doing it? The judges point especially to the police station as the source of the problem and also the location of the solution. It’s a compelling argument. It is the police who are most responsible. Arrests are where the system must change first, to say nothing of the shootings of unarmed black men which the police in Austin, Texas, the liberal mecca, are also famous for. Which means unjustified traffic stops and searches of minority motorists have to end too, or come down to a community-agreed level. Despite the primacy of the police roleeveryone seems to have great hopes for the presumed new district attorney, Margaret Moore, who is walking on water right now. It’s said that one of her first edicts after winning the Democratic primary was that she won’t accept campaign contributions from any assistant D.A.s, which may mean that heads will roll. The point of praising Margaret Moore now also seems to be to lock her in. The Nobel Prize Committee did something similar to Barack Obama not long after he was elected—premature praise—just after he was sworn in as president, giving him a peace prize he had not earned in order to make sure he stayed on the side of the angels. So, too, one hopes—Margaret Moore. If we praise her as a moderate with a conscience when she enters office, perhaps she’ll still be one when she leaves. Hopefully the heavy hubris and surfeit of self-satisfaction here along the banks of the mighty Colorado—in the Live Music Capital of the World—won’t corrupt her as it has Ronnie Earle’s other former assistants.
But we have insurance. There’s a different big man in town these days, who has replaced the D.A.'s Office at the center of the criminal justice system. Luckily, this handsome stranger rode to our rescue. In fact, he’s been here almost a decade already and no matter how bad it is, it’s gotten better since his arrival. Or not gotten worse, which is the case elsewhere. Now it’s Chief Acevedo more than any one other individual, more than the D.A. or the district judges who must solve the problem of disparate enforcement against minorities and try to stop disparate prosecutions at the courthouse. It’s a tall order. In an uncertain age he’s become the adult in the room, together with Marc Ott, the city manager. Ott and Acevedo had words recently—you might say— the chief walked away with a suspension, everyone was under a lot of stress, there’s more now, but these two men, one brown and one black, as corny as it may sound, have worked together in the past. And this is key: they both received the instructions from the Justice Department, in 2008, about how to fix policing in this city—some of which has been done and some which has not.
Chief Acevedo is a “good guy” too and in the present fucked-up context that may make him the best man for the job.



There’s one historical incident and one fact of life that are important in understanding the dynamic of policing in the city. The cops are rude. Which is one of the few things both the chief and the union agree on. One possible reason is that the public also has a mouth on it, this is a pretty high-brow community and talking back to a police officer when stopped, for whatever reason, has a certain appeal, especially in the minority community. The problem with all the rudeness is that it’s also where interactions go bad. It’s hard to believe that a lack of courtesy can lead to gunfire but that’s a theory in modern criminology. The “incident” happened a long time ago and may also have a role in creating the troublesome dynamic for the police here today.
The year was ’80, or thereabouts, and at that time there was a bus station downtown on Congress Avenue about where the office of the Texas Tribune is today, if memory serves. And at that time the city had a vice squad for those behaviors that were not permitted, even among consenting adults. One day, two undercover vice cops made an arrest in the bus station, for a behavior that today would probably be considered the business of the person involved—it was something about a hand on a dick, in the bus station men’s room, a block from the Capitol, and at the time was a crime and called, colloquially, “weenie-wagging” but may have been more weenie-holding or an offer to hold, which was also illegal between men at that time in the state of Texas. What’s important here is that the arrested suspect turned out to be the chairman of the Texas Pardons and Paroles Board. Who had friends in the upper ranks of the police department.
And the next time we saw the two vice detectives—shortly thereafter—they were still on Congress Avenue but in uniform, doing parking enforcement, riding three-wheelers. The point here is there are a lot of VIPs in this town, Austin probably has more powerful and rich people per capita than anywhere else in the state, and when the police have done their jobs, on DWI arrests for example, there’s sometimes been blowback for the officer who made the collar. Every year, or every couple of years, a major official gets popped for drunk driving—it’s usually during legislative session, or it seems that way—D.A. Rosemary Lehmberg was the last but by no means the first, this is a hard-drinking town. Which is how the police union became inordinately powerful, because it needed to be. The problem is that the police union has used its power to defend all officers, both falsely-accused like the two vice detectives and others who have deserved to take a fall. it's a thought to keep in mind.
One of the district judges with criminal jurisdiction mentioned recently that when Chief Acevedo is questioned about the department’s approach to law enforcement in the minority community, Acevedo invariably talks about his support from black organizations like the NAACP and Urban League. Indeed the NAACP protests police shootings but on its website has pictures of Chief Acevedo at NAACP events. How cool is that? Ideologically-speaking—speaking as a Black Nationalist, for example—the correct take would have to be that Chief Acevedo is a "pig," doctrinally-speaking of course. As chief in fact he’s the biggest pig at the "pig pen," as offensive as that term may be to some. Those may actually have been the first words out of my mouth when we met. But he’s actually a pretty good guy when you talk to him. It’s not that Art Acevedo is hard not to like—it’s that Art Acevedo is impossible not to like. And that’s the point: Chief Acevedo talks to everyone. He’s on speaking terms even with the people who want to get rid of him, which included me. The guy is everywhere, “engaging the community,” which is a trite phrase but is still a pretty accurate description of what he does. And he was doing it long before Dallas or Baton Rouge which gives him credibility that some others don’t have.
When the he begins a sentence, “As a person of color,” speaking of himself, it’s totally calculated on Chief Acevedo’s part, totally—but still a powerful message in this town which historically has been segregated even down to the city infrastructure, worse sewers and sidewalks on the eastside, to say nothing of worse treatment by the police. There’s an attitude here, especially in the Travis County Democratic Party and especially at the courthouse, that it’s a club, a closed shop, and people who are in are in: do as you’re told, keep your mouth shut and you’ll be rewarded. That’s how Wil Flowers broke in, for example, all anyone asked of him was that he send his people to prison and he did, that's how he became district judge. Chief Acevedo is now in the mix and he’s shown different judgment and has shown something approaching a moral center, for a cop. One of the frequent comments heard about Acevedo is that he’s looking for a bigger job somewhere else (he’s been a finalist both in Dallas and in San Antonio) and that he’s motivated by where he’s going next. But what ambitious person isn’t? Born in Cuba and raised in this country, a better description of Acevedo than "ambitious" is hungry. More important than where the chief is going next is where he’s coming from, California, where the job of police chief is much more political than we are accustomed to in Texas. Some sort of charm or media presence can be a prerequisite even for law enforcement in the Golden State. In Los Angeles, the longest serving mayor was a former L.A. police lieutenant, and black. A white former chief of LAPD became a long-serving California state senator and another black L.A. former chief just left office as one of the longest-serving L.A. council members and as an unsuccessful candidate for mayor. Other examples in California are even more analogous to what’s happening in Austin. The present D.A. of San Francisco is the former S.F. police chief. The longest-serving mayor in San Diego, of recent years, was the former San Diego chief of police. Chief Acevedo comes to us from a law enforcement culture where chiefs are political figures and if you watch him in public, giving talks to business organizations for example, meeting and greeting—there’s a lot of “engagement,” everything except kissing babies—which is how the chief became such a popular figure, while our prior chiefs have been more technocrats, when we were lucky, and old boys when we weren’t. In fact a high-ranking member of the union claims to have seen Chief Acevedo kiss babies. For a guy with a gun on his belt he has people skills that City Council members can only envy. The danger for him is they will become jealous first.
One of the judges who spoke to the chief directly about those bad minority arrest statistics, said that the Acevedo’s answers indicated he is very concerned with what the business community wants, as much as what the city council or the judges demand. Another judge who hangs defendants for a living suggested that if Acevedo is going to run for office—he was expected to run for sheriff, earlier this year, but his friend Sheriff Hamilton waited until the last moment not to run. Well, the idea is the chief is laying the groundwork for support from the business community, which will translate into contributions. That’s the theory and it may be correct. Acevedo’s been on the job almost a decade. He knows a lot of people and he knows a lot of secrets. He knows all the things that don't appear in your morning newspaper. He knows Austin, he would be a formidable opponent but he has a commitment to solve this problem first and judges who would talk said the police department under his leadership has improved, without a doubt—the question is, will it get where it needs to go in terms of some semblance of colorblind justice on Chief Acevedo’s watch? That is the question of the hour. Can he seal the deal in other words or will he split for greener pastures? Asked in a recent interview if he plans to run for office one day, the chief replied in a matter-of-fact, cop way, “I never say never.”
There’s almost too much of the guy for the city to contain. He’s everywhere at once. If you look at his calendars for a few months, you may learn as much about him as by talking to him. There’s obviously quite a bit of cop-stuff in his daily life: A lot of time set aside for meetings with the assistant chiefs, “the fifth floor,” as it’s called inside the Department, which is said by some officials to be the location of many of the profiling problems, the old boys who ran the police department back in the day and some say still do. That’s what people at City Hall mean when they say, “the fifth floor,” and roll their eyes, believe what you will. Acevedo’s calendars show an occasional meeting with the FBI assistant agent in charge and conference calls with Homeland Security, probably for all the big-city chiefs on threat assessments, one presumes. He has to qualify with his weapon once a year but seems to spend more time than that on the range which may mean he’s expecting trouble or he's a cautious guy or both. This is important: If you look at his continuing education course transcript, available from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, he’s taken a lot of in-services, including on diversity—at last count more than Col. Steve McCraw across town, head of the state police who also has a profiling crisis. If bias in policing really is an education problem, it’s nice to see he’s taking the same classes required of the troops. Chief Acevedo also seems to see in person the officers he’s going to suspend or fire, which is kind of ballsy, doing his own dirty work, but that may be a department custom, or a police thing. During the period in question, the three months last year covered by release of his daily appointments, he saw in his office the black community’s poster boy for Rogue White Cop in Austin, Texas—Officer Eric Copeland—who was first feted by the city and by Chief Acevedo as a hero, in 2012, when he chased down African-American motorist Ahmede Bradley and killed him in a struggle—over a loud music offense. Later, Copeland began showing up in other high profile cases involving minorities and the chief told him he will be fired the next time there’s a justified complaint. There are media interviews during Acevedo’s day, obviously, and for the talking dogs of TV news he sometimes does it in Spanish. But that’s not what sticks out. Pick a day at random.
This one is a Thursday, last August, almost a year ago before so much blood started to run in the nation’s streets. For context, Austin P.D. was killing about one unarmed black man a year at the time, which is still the rate more or less today, give or take a dead Negro. (Not to worry, we’ve had ours for this year.) That Thursday the chief’s calendar reminded him that it was the day of a City Council work session, meaning he might be called in to answer questions. For an hour in the morning he met with the fifth floor. After that it was a half an hour in his office with a Google representative about the company’s self-driving car. Then another half hour, written in, with a note on stage management, as “Teddy bears from Austin Junior Forum—Chief Will Take Lead with Victim Services.” Next there was a "Back to School safety press conference"—two hours of birthday lunches for the troops—followed by a reception for the fired medical director of Austin-Travis County EMS. The day ended with a conference call, presumably threat-related but that's been redacted for public release. The same week, two days later, he came in on a Saturday to have a meeting with the mayor and the leader of the NAACP, which protests in front of the police station every time there’s a police shooting but seems to approve of Acevedo personally. Later that evening he did a ride along with an Alzheimer’s researcher, she was kind of a babe, in a scientific way—Google indicates—so it presumably wasn’t hard work.
People also report seeing Chief Acevedo at restaurants downtown during the day, when he lunches with his driver. He’s an outgoing guy. The troops say he knows them well. “He never forgets a face,” a sergeant working patrol mentioned recently, while waiting for paramedics to finish working on a guy who wasn’t going to get any better. You may think a lot of this is extraneous to his job leading the police department, catching crooks, keeping us safe—but suppose this is what he’s most needed for, to keep people talking in a community on edge. In a country on edge. Art Acevedo isn’t a hero, he’s a sign of the times. The job of police chief has been redefined and Acevedo is one of the first to realize that. So, about this theory, though, that the chief’s weakness isn’t minority relations—that doesn’t mean he won’t take a fall, you feel me? It just won’t be about race or not directly. The idea is that whatever happens to him won’t happen on the Eastside but downtown, where he has a big blind spot. Ronnie Earle used to say he didn’t prosecute “sin” and Acevedo has said, basically, he doesn’t arrest it. But one of the judges mentioned the department’s heightened enforcement, for drugs and prostitution, for example, in the minority neighborhoods of northeast Austin—Rundberg Lane and environs—where blacks and browns have been pushed due to gentrification of old East Austin: arrests which are showing up in the criminal courts. Which the chief insists the community itself asked for, but the evidence on that is still out.
This judge, though, mentioned heightened enforcement downtown, also, which His Honor describes as enforcement that ends on the sidewalk. All those big hotels—all those conventions—all that sex, some of it paid for—and all those drugs—all that dirty money, that could be seized, especially during SXSW or ACL—everything happens just like out northeast, except the arrests. What is considered “sin” downtown is a crime in East Austin. People are doing the same thing in both places, but those on Rundberg Lane end up in front of Julie Kocurek when she needs to feed the machine.
“I re-started the vice squad!” Chief Acevedo insisted recently, rather defensively one must say. The vice squad was apparently disbanded by one of his predecessors, who sensed Austin’s drift in terms of consensual activity. Today the chief admits that the same behavior that people of color are getting busted for in northeast Austin does not normally result in arrests downtown. Gee. P.D.’s official explanation, the department’s rationale for disproportionate arrests, is that a lot of what happens in minority neighborhoods is happening in public, solicitations for example, “in the middle of the street,” in view of children—and that’s a fair explanation.
“Consenting adults,” chimes in the Department’s number 2, Assistant Chief Brian Manley—in a recent discussion of how this can be—because if you think about it, it’s completely discriminatory. The same behavior that puts blacks and browns in jail is tolerated in the big hotels among the affluent and mostly white. So, the theory is that could spell trouble for the chief because, clearly, it’s bad karma in a town where your karma is still believed to be your fate.
What’s going on downtown, you never hear much about it—you don’t read much about in on the police blotter, either. Have you noticed? Unless it’s Shia LeBouef being an ass on Sixth Street (he gets arrested everywhere) you never hear about it. You feel me? People may not have been arrested but that doesn’t mean P.D. doesn’t know what’s going on, up in the penthouse, especially if they do it on the balcony or roof—the police system of cameras downtown alone is worthy of the NSA. (If the chief offers you a tour of the room at P.D. where the monitors are, don’t take it—you don’t want to know.) It’s all in a good cause, and it’s been effective, that’s a good argument, what has happened in Austin has happened year after year, only to people of color, shooting by shooting, not to white people and not all at once like in Dallas or Baton Rouge. But if the chief’s luck is going to change, if his karma is going south, it’ll be because something happened somewhere close to the river, that’s a good guess, between the Colorado and the Capitol, that’s the smart bet, you heard it here first. This town, the last ten years? Even the activities when people didn’t get arrested—especially the activities when people didn’t get arrested—shit can start in one of the big hotels, or end there, and in between there’s a body at a house out on the lake—Texas noir—that’s the Austin way, a body in a lake house, and we’re due. That would be a possible hit on the chief’s career, this is only speculation, because the karma is pretty bad. Or his numbers will catch up with him. That would be worse and is actually more likely.
Because that’s Acevedo’s other blind spot. Four years ago, the police department’s statistics on stops of minorities were in the ozone—the non-consensual stops alone were more than in Houston even though Houston has three times the population. Today, the department claims the same non-consensual stops of blacks and Hispanics are far below the national average. Whether that’s true or not, it’s all about the numbers which are not perfect indicators of what’s going on but better than professed good intentions by P.D. or prosecutors. There has to be numerical measurement that everyone can agree on, right now everyone has his or her own numbers and that’s the point of contention. The City Council relies heavily for its numbers, for example, on former council member and LBJ School of Public Affairs Professor Bill Spelman who has repeatedly claimed, through the years, that policing problems in the minority community are not the result of any kind of prejudice on the part of the cops. Just two months ago he made a presentation at the invitation of the council’s Public Safety Committee in which Professor Spelman cited figures and his conclusion that frequent stops of blacks and browns are not the result of profiling. Who would agree with that assessment today? Only in a subsequent email did he make clear that his conclusion about police intentions was not drawn from the figures he presented, but was his own opinion, which is not the impression he gave in front of the Public Safety Committee. In any case it’s all about stats—numbers—figures. Liars can figure but it's rarer than figures lie.
Recently the Police Monitor, former Sheriff Margo Frasier, tried to present her stats to the Public Safety Commission, a different body than the council's Public Safety Committee which handles a lot of the nuts and bolts of public safety. Sheriff Frasier was shot down by the mayor’s representative, former Canadian police detective Kim Rossmo who is a criminology professor at Texas State. Rossmo was longtime chairman of the Commission, appointed by then-Council Member Spelman and—perhaps because he comes from a more homogenous racial environment like Canada—he has seemed to be a tad dubious over the years regarding minority complaints about police misconduct. Professor Spelman and Dr. Rossmo have been the intellectual forces behind policing in the city for a long time and until recently it’s been unclear how either man has contributed to any kind of solution. But Dr. Rossmo who is a smart guy has latched onto the root of a very important idea. The numbers need to be right. Bad stats are worse than no stats at all. Also, separately, P.D.’s data need to be made completely available to the Police Monitor which has not been happening—in violation of the best practices laid down for Ott and Chief Acevedo by the Department of Justice in 2008. This is not rocket science. But it does involve higher math. And for that the Police Monitor needs to have her own numbers-cruncher. Because that’s what Chief Acevedo has. His name is Alex Del Carmen and he's said to be Texas’s premier expert on racial profiling.
Dr. Del Carmen started the ball rolling earlier this year by dinging our department on identifying Latinos as whites. It’s a very common problem or tactic among Texas police forces and blocks any effort to break out stats on arrests of Hispanics. This is what the state police and Col. McCraw were very publicly busted for by a local TV station earlier this year. District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg has also been describing Latinos as whites in her in-house statistical analysis, which they very well may be, but nonetheless giving no indication of how many Latinos she has prosecuted—which is a hefty number, based upon what you see in the courts. It’s all about the numbers. Austin’s are bad no matter how you crunch them if this is supposed to be a progressive city and not a de facto segregated one. What everyone has been relying upon are communitywide stats, however, showing for instance how many blacks have been sent to prison from Travis County, versus the percentage of blacks in the local population. That’s kind of the sledgehammer approach. New techniques may point more towards individual police officers.
“For instance,” Dr. Del Carmen explained in a recent email, “if you have an officer that searched 1,000 African-Americans in a year but found contraband in only 3 searches, that would obviously constitute a problem.” Let’s see, what else—recently, Travis County was the only major metropolitan area in the state to decline to participate in a study of personal bond. Increased use of personal bonds would cut back on the cash bonds (read, bail bondsmen, who kick back a part of their bond fees to judges through campaign contributions) required so often now, which defendants must also pay for. Apparently, the study would have been conducted directly, with the investigators collecting and running their own numbersnot relying on Travis County’s Probation Department to do it for them. Whoever has control of the numbers controls the system. It’s all about metrics, who has the best figures—they don’t even have to be true if they look good—that’s what Mark Twain famously meant. You know how the cop takes your license and runs your name through the Big Computer during a traffic stop? The day will come when you can run the cop who has stopped you on your phone and see his record of arrests while he’s looking at yours. The union might not like it of course. Data is power.
One last note: Those two vice cops at the bus station? One of them was Mike Lummus, who will presumably become chief of the D.A.’s investigators. After the bus station bust—and after he got off parking enforcement—Lummus became president of the police union and in recent years has been chief in a nearby community: presumably he realizes there are bad cops and bad arrests. He’s a good guy, for a cop, as is Acevedo. Margaret Moore is a good person as is Rosemary Lehmberg, who just had some bad luck. Rosemary's defenders say that she never really wanted the job, we can leave it at that, except it's probably safe to say Gov. Perry's interventions did not help. City Manager Marc Ott took a lot of grief for suspending the chief of police but some of the success Ott has actually had in City Hall has been on race and on the police department. Suddenly it’s looking like the most important issue for the city, if it wasn’t already. The hanging judges are still a problem, many of the racial disparities in this community have actually been created by blacks ourselves, by Toms in black robes, but Judges Clemmer and Wahlberg are good guys, so everybody says. So, it’s a pretty good crew and maybe they’ll have some luck, before Austin has its day from hell and the blood really starts to flow.


Saturday, July 9, 2016

Diversifying Media in a Diverse World

“Cultural appropriation” has been a popular catchphrase recently and for the uninitiated the practice involves adoption of another culture “without invitation or permission of use,” per Wikipedia. Which you hear a lot about these days in the media and which actually has a pretty significant history in the media.
            In the world of journalism, cultural appropriation can have a particularly unpleasant side effect. It’s one thing for a white rapper like Eminem or Justin Timberlake to “steal black music,” which both have been accused of in the last few weeks, something we don’t have to render a judgment upon here. But it’s quite another when a white newspaper reporter or television journalist does a piece about life in the African-American community, for example—and describes what it’s like being a member of a culture or even part of a cultural landscape which the reporter is not. American journalism has a long history of the wrong people writing some of the right stories and many of the errant kind. You don’t have to believe the media themselves have been part of a system of oppression, another judgment we won’t be rendering here. Assume that intentions have been good. The vein of paternalism even by liberal white reporters—especially by liberal whites who thought they were doing good and may have done good—has run wide and deep. That’s a fact, let’s move on. But not far.
We blacks, in this example, but also Native Americans and Latinos have generally been deemed incapable of speaking for ourselves. So, there’s cultural paternalism or cultural appropriation as the case may be—and the reality that you didn’t get the job, either. Newsrooms and editorial boards are still very white, as evidenced by the recent contretemps caused by a tweet from the Huffington Post editorial meeting, all women and most of them Caucasian. The Times is not alone in sending out white foreign correspondents to Africa, still today one presumes, and non-Chinese to cover China, and non-Hispanics to cover Latin America even though in each of these cases there are journalists of those particular ethnic backgrounds who will know more about the cultural landscape as they arrive than many white reporters will know by the time they board the return flight to New York. Journalism has had its moments as the new “peculiar institution” that slavery was before. The tendency to keep us out of the loop in describing our own culture peaked with the election of Barack Obama, as a stampede of whites descended on the White House determined to write about what it means to be the “first black president.” Since then, there’s been exceptional progress made.
Editors have been examining their own staffs, something that should have been done long ago but better late than never. Without focusing on the past it’s still important to note that mainstream journalism got wrong the biggest public safety issue to the black community since Emancipation—not Muslim extremism—but white cops who shoot unarmed African-American men. Caucasian reporters didn’t get that story right for something like a century and a half and didn’t correct the error themselves, until amateur videos began appearing on YouTube. The fact is American journalism has changed for the better though and certain editors, some of them white, deserve credit for stepping up. At the top of big mastheads both the New Yorker's David Remnick and Dean Baquet of the New York Times have had similar success extending diversity in their editorial departments, to different effects. Both publications can be said to have begun at the same starting point which, whatever the exact details, resembled something other than “diversity” as presently defined.
            In a brief explanation of his own experience, in response to an email inquiry, David Remnick explained how he came to hire the man who is becoming a go-to source on the African-American experience, Jelani Cobb—“Dr. Cobb” as he has been called, not because of a PhD but because of a different kind of knowedge base. I met Jelani at the Schomburg [Center for Research in Black Culture at New York Public Library] maybe five years ago,” Remnick wrote. “We were on a panel discussion together with a couple of other African-American intellectuals (one radio person, another writer), and he just struck me as so incredibly smart, and I just invited him to write for us. . . . The only way to do it is to do it. To be truthful, the web has expanded our capacity to try out more people.” Instead of its prior reputation for effete if penetrating views of the world, well-written yes, the New Yorker has become more of a source of black thought than mere reportage of same for interested white readers.
You have to credit concerned editors, but also, as Remnick says, you need to credit the Web. It’s changed everything, including civil rights: “Our challenge is that the core of what we do, and did, was the heavily-reported, God-willing beautifully written long piece: and that requires a pretty large measure of experience, etc. The web has expanded the sheer number of things we do---particularly shorter things---so there is the capacity to try things at less ambitious length, and with less investment, on both sides.” To the degree the New Yorker does what no one else does, the inclusion of other voices seems to work. Even the famous New Yorker covers now show colored peoples. Meanwhile at Times Square under the prominent Creole-born editor Dean Baquet the changes have been just as impressive. The old Times has largely disappeared (some of the change presumably begun by Baquet’s predecessor, the underrated Jill Abramson), replaced by new writers and new views, mostly. But in the Internet age, with so many sources of content, to the degree the Times does what anyone else does the result seems somehow less satisfying. The New Yorker is still the New Yorker but the Times is no longer the Times, a daily must-read, through no fault of its own. It’s impossible to parse out how much of the difference if any is due to “diversity” or what we call diversity, which may just be more accurate reporting. The Times is a more culturally-aware newspaper but not necessarily—yet—a more interesting one. Diversity is an improvement but it isn’t a cure-all. If the Internet is assisting the opening of doors at older established outlets, though, shouldn’t it be helping the new kids on the block even more? Case in point the Texas Tribune.
Founded in 2009 in an all-digital format, with non-traditional funding, the Tribune’s first forays into hiring were or were not minority-friendly, depending upon your point of view. Hiring a whole new staff at the start of business had advantages for getting it right though that incrementalism does not. The Tribune didn’t employ black journalists, for example, until relatively recently. It may not have been the right call at the beginning but it may be the right one now—in what so far has been TT’s charmed media life. Founder Evan Smith was not particularly diversity-friendly in his prior gig as editor of Texas Monthly but blacks and Hispanics have never been part of the Monthly’s business model. That’s a separate problem. Since then, at TT, Smith has more than made up—by creating content and creating j-o-b-s for minority journalists. It’s impossible to argue with success. Which raises the question: liberal rhetoric is fine but who are you hiring?
The success of TT has been especially revealing: There’s a fact of life for blacks in Texas and in the country at large that’s hard to accept because, for so long, African-Americans have been the story of race in America. We did the fighting and the dying—and still are—and we were largely in charge of that narrative when our story could be wrestled loose from white reporters. Recently however, both Asians and Hispanics have become uncomfortable with a blacks-only account of civil rights history, to say nothing of Native Americans who never bought into that story in the first place. Witness complaints about Chris Rock’s monologue at the last Oscars ceremony, as if black performers are the only people with a quarrel in Hollywood. As demographics change and as the civil rights movement morphs to include different values—and differing census numbers—blacks may represent tradition while Asians and Latinos represent the future focus of efforts at "getting the story." The Tribune’s employment numbers outlined recently by Editor-in-Chief Emily Ramshaw speak to that. There’s still a concern about black reporters, especially in light of recent events in Dallas, and elsewhere. Black people make a virtue of speaking up—confrontation—but a different style of protest and a different approach to bringing about change may one day be the standard.
“We have five Latino journalists, one African-American journalist and three Asian-American journalists on staff,” Ramshaw related in a recent email, out of a staff of 40-odd people. The Tribune does employ the bulk of the journalists of color in the Texas Capitol press corps, in part because the Tribune employs more people than anyone else in the Texas Capitol press corps, which is not a ding but a compliment. TT has also managed to create internships and fellowships for grad students while other publications are shedding reporters. “Diversity in hiring and recruiting is paramount, and we—and newsrooms across the state and the nation—clearly have major room for improvement in that regard. It's the subject of urgent discussion at virtually every journalism conference I attend,” Ramshaw wrote in reply to the question of what her own newsroom looks like. “The Tribune is working hard to find new pipelines of prospects to further diversify our news-gathering, which I believe would augment our coverage and help us reach an even wider audience.Ramshaw says all the “right” things and they may also be the correct responses to the problem: Race is a moving target in this country and some editors have done better hitting it than others. One size does not fit all media outlets or markets. The Times and the New Yorker are national publications, some would say international, located in a city where there are thriving minority communities and a wide selection of top-drawer universities that funnel students into writing crafts. On the other hand the Tribune is in Austin, a city that until a few years ago was considered a small Southern town, which has been shedding black people through the last few decades, yet the Tribune has had success in integrating its workforce in ways that have largely not been replicated among colleagues in the Lone Star capital city. It’s a long way from New York to Austin, both on land and in journalism content, but it’s still a revealing road trip.
Of the four other major publications headquartered in Austin—Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Cox Media’s daily newspaper the American-Statesman, which has improved markedly in recent years, although not necessarily on race, and the weekly alternative Austin Chronicle—two of the four edited by white women and two by white men—it almost says everything that needs to be said that three of the four editors, TM’s Brian Sweany, TO’s Forrest Wilder and the Chronicle’s Kimberley Jones all declined comment on what efforts if any they’ve made to diversify content and their respective staffs. Silence is worth a thousand words. Even without the responses of these editors however it’s still possible to draw a picture of these publications’ profiles in the minority community, and how racism exists in journalism apart from hiring. Especially given the business these publications are in, public discourse that in some cases—in fact, often—rises to the level of editorial self-righteousness. Hypocrisy is also a good word.
In Austin, one of the most dynamic media markets in the country (the city is highly-educated, affluent and white) there are four sacred cows, you could call them, four potential subjects of journalistic inquiry that show few footprints in the press. If you’re reading any of the four publications above don’t look for much on any of the following stories: Dell Computers—or founder Michael Dell, almost certainly the most powerful individual in town, an original backer of George W. Bush and one of the most influential conservatives in the state; South by Southwest, the festival which has become so integrated into City government that it’s hard to tell where the private business of SXSW (Chronicle owners Louis Black and Nick Barbaro are also two of the owners of the festival) begins and what the city does for it ends; the University of Texas and the Texas Democratic Party. Austin-born Whole Foods was once also on the list—beyond scrutiny, untouched by critical reporting—but the company’s missteps in the last year or two have been so conspicuous as to be impossible to ignore.
Each of the four publications mentioned has a different Achilles heel, a different blind spot that, in some cases, can also be detrimental to minorities and to any concept of social justice. With the Monthly, for example, it’s Dell, or the University of Texas. With the Observer and the Chronicle it’s all of the above. The American-Statesman under editor Debbie Hiott is an exception. The newspaper has explored ties between SXSW and city government—and to Hiott’s credit, was first to begin questioning police behavior towards minorities, before it was fashionable, using statistical analysis on arrests as long ago as 2004. But it’s a narrow focus. If you’re black and your photo appears in Austin’s daily newspaper you’re either in jail or headed there—the AAS interfaces with the local black community almost exclusively through its police reporter—you’re an athlete/entertainer, or POTUS. The daily also has a long history of not questioning the university—which is portrayed in this newspaper as a benevolent white force in the black community. Both the Chronicle and the AAS completely missed the gentrification of once minority-rich East Austin as the gentrification was taking place, the daily because it was paying more attention to the suburbs, apparently, and the alternative because conflicts of interest with city government and the business community limit introspection. The mistake is thinking that it’s all about who the media hire. That’s a start but it’s not the end, it’s also about who’s paying for advertising space—or who is a publisher of a newspaper and a businessman in another sphere (Black and Barbaro are more powerful figures in this community, through SXSW, than anyone their newspaper publishes stories about) or who thinks that the Democratic Party is flawless—Austin is a Democratic town—in an era of extreme Republicans practically everywhere else in the state. When Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad was asked to remove her hijab at this year's SXSW, during a search, the story made world headlines but got two sentences in a news roundup in the Chronicle itself. UT Austin has received uniformly good press over its affirmative action program, just upheld by the Supreme Court, but TT recently reported that Texas A&M, UT's more rustic, less "liberal" and less hip sister institution has a better record of increasing admissions of minorities than UT and even though A&M really has no affirmative action program in effect. A black freelancer recently submitted a story to the Chronicle describing UT’s uniformly white leadership and the whites-only administration of UT System, under former Seal-in-Chief Admiral Bill McRaven.The Chronicle not only rejected the story but, without the author’s permission, sent the manuscript to UT to alert university leadership of its contents. UT is a Chronicle advertiser and occasional partner. Editor-in-Chief Kimberley Jones denies any wrongdoing on the part of her staff but it’s interesting nonetheless that in most big cities the traditional daily newspaper is the protector of the status quo, doing the Chamber of Commerce’s business, while the alternative weekly is the muckraker. In the Texas capital the roles are reversed. The Chronicle is the white hipster-driven, community-booster while the daily newspaper casts a more skeptical eye. The effect is that the weekly promotes old-style Southern racism while the daily tries fitfully to turn te page.
           Something that both David Remnick and Emily Ramshaw said about diversity in journalism may be wrong, in this context. Both said it’s their belief that diversity makes for better journalism and makes a publication more accessible to more readers. That’s not a universally-held belief, especially not in Austin. In 43 years Texas Monthly has never hired a black staff writer, Hispanics are still scarce in its pages and the magazine itself, in the recent past at least, has had a theme of re-creating, for Texas’s many new arrivals, the “mythic” Texas of movies and of white-written history books—in which blacks, Mexicans and Native Americans have only a walk-on role. It's not true, that’s bad journalism, and a Big Lie. Meanwhile at the Observer, Molly Ivins’ old haunt, home of an almost exquisite sense of political correctness, the view is exactly the opposite. As many as half of the magazine’s stories can be about race or touch on race but in 64 years of existence the Observer has only had one black staff member, all the top editors have, with one exception, been white and if you look at its masthead today, of the nine editorial positions, the top five—editor, publisher, managing editor, digital editor and multimedia editor—are all Caucasian in a state in which, the Observer reminds us every issue, minorities are the majority. That’s kind of fucked up, don’t you think? It is about hiring, but at the same time it isn’t, it’s about all of it: story choices and cultural competence and old-fashioned conflicts of interest, and whose ox ultimately is getting gored, and not treating us, whatever color we may be, like niggers.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Black Power Revisited the L.P.



My mother once received a letter from William Faulkner. Or so she said. The letter was supposedly from the Nobel-prizewinner himself—the writer who Flannery O’Connor, no mere scribbler herself called “the Dixie Limited.” Faulkner was the master of Southern Gothic among whose haunting characters are the bear of “The Bear” and my personal favorite Joe Christmas, the mulatto killer of Light in August. Mother said she threw Faulkner’s letter away. Her papers are now at Emory University, my siblings did it without consulting me, not that that’s a problem, and maybe one day an archivist will come across Faulkner’s note. Probably not. 
The chances that Mother did receive a "communication" from the great man are better than even and even though accuracy was not always the hallmark of her storytelling. My mother was fortunate to live and work in another time when there were only a couple of degrees of separation between most people. For African-Americans, for example, you were either still slaving for a white man, or white woman, or you weren’t. My mother was a black female journalist in an age when that particular description was unheard of, not that it’s common even today. The world was a smaller place back then. Blacks involved in the arts, letters or politics knew each other because there weren’t many to know. And you knew white people because they were running things. In our own culture, there was a studied informality especially among the intelligentsia that included and includes many athletes and performers, due in part to Communist influence—but mostly because these were Negroes for whom, coming “up” from slavery, informality was a way of life, even among the glitterati. “Brother” or “Sister” served the same role as “Comrade.” Mother wasn’t a Red but she knew a few and everyone, whatever their politics, had pretty much the same goal and the same subject of their work. There was considerable cooperation achieving common aims. The civil rights movement has been an ensemble work from the beginning. 
What mother experienced in the ‘50s alone, to say nothing of the ‘60s and ‘70s when she was writing for Hearst Newspapers in San Francisco was remarkable because she never talked much about it. She spoke in glowing terms of herself—but could be short on details about her dealings with anyone else. Writing an article about a fiery young black Baptist pastor—she never told me she stayed with the M.L. Kings at their home in Montgomery, an anecdote that has arisen since her death and may not be true. It sounds like an exaggeration and is something her papers will prove one way or another, one supposes. Once, and this is an event that is in the historical record, Mother was short of money and in New York City and she drove, in a Mercury Comet—with me in the back seat—to a club where Duke Ellington was playing and said she was going in to get “Duke” to cash a personal check. She came back out with money, what can you say? It was a small community, being black in America then. 
So, the backstory on the Faulkner letter is this: My mother was editor of a small newspaper in L.A., back in the day, and she had a fondness for writing provocative editorials about race relations in a time and in a place—yes, even the Golden State of California—where “diversity” was not as popular a word as it is today.
And after publishing fiery prose she usually licked stamps and mailed copies out to social and political leaders who, not being subscribers to the Tribune, otherwise would not see her work. One of her editorial musing made its way to Oxford, Mississippi, home of the Dixie Limited. My mother recounted for me Faulkner’s response in a single sentence, either that was all she retained or all he had said, it’s still etched in my memory half a century later: and, once again, it’s my belief that the chances are better than 50-50 this is a factual anecdote, not because Mother was unfailingly accurate in her reportage but because of what she reported Faulkner said. 
“I am all for the emancipation of the Negro,” she quoted the great man, “but if they come marching down my street I’ll be waiting on my porch with my shotgun.” If that wasn’t William Faulkner, it deserved to be. 
The reason to remember the Dixie Limited today is not just great prose, even if he was dismissive of the Negro, and even if the characters in his books preyed upon black people just as flesh and blood whites did. The reason to remember William Faulkner today is because he understood the fundamental quality of the struggle over race in this country: it has largely been about violence, committing it, being victim of it or writing about it, as was the case with Faulkner and Mother. Civil rights has changed in recent years, for the better, we’ve made great progress—today we see the “mountaintop” that MLK talked about even if we have not yet arrived. For that reason now seems like as good a time as any to review what we as a people have gotten right and what we’ve gotten wrong “in the struggle.” “The Movement” for equality in America has been fought on several fronts and violence as a tactic and as a longterm strategy seems to have worked pretty well. On the most basic level it has involved doing to white people what they do to us, a strategy that was accepted from the start by most everyone in “black leadership,” the Talented Tenth as DuBois called it, or whoever they were. One day in my relative youth my then-sister-in-law the novelist Pearl Cleage, who came from militant stock, explained the Black Liberation tri-color flag to me. “Black is for the people, green is for the land,” she told me in complete earnest, “and red is for the blood that must be shed to get there.” For her part, my mother shed blood in print. One of my siblings even described the rat-a-tat-tat of Mother’s Smith-Corona as sounding like gunfire. As for rhetoric, or words—Faulkner had that right too. And there, we haven’t done too badly either. You knew racists were doomed when Motown got involved, when black music became widely popular, often with social themes worked in. And you could dance to it? Songs about black pride and solidarity marches never called to me personally, but they were effective. Music, painting, movies, TV, daily interactions with the white man, or white woman, the decentralization and wide reach of the civil rights movement is its genius. There has been a rebellion going on and everyone is involved but no one is in control. It eventually all is coming  together, often led by performers, as blacks everywhere seem to know what to do without being told. And we keep notes. We have the clippings because of people like my mother.
Once many years ago during my undergraduate years at UCLA: Mother had talked about her great editorials for so long but did not have copies—she sent me to a Cal State campus that had the Tribune on microfilm. The prose was ordinary, to tell the truth, but this was a business more than an art, you have to know what Mother used to say about the Black Press—newspapers that included her own—led by a group of journalists she considered herself part of: “Everything you see in a black newspaper has been paid for,” she told me. ”Everything you don’t see has also been paid for.” This was business, the repression and the rebellion. My mother’s magazine work, though limited, was outstanding. There’s a piece she wrote about crossing the South by bus, back in the day, and being in West Texas and being forced to drink from a blacks-only water fountain, in the Greyhound bus terminal in Big Spring. That was in The Nation and was a good story. That same road trip from Dixie to L.A. forms part of my childhood memory and if you had asked me as a kid what Jim Crow was like—as it was explained to me by Mother at the time, on the road—it was like a tax that was added to your daily life and you paid and you paid and you paid and if you stopped paying they killed you, or sent you to prison. Does that sound extreme? Not in our social circle. There are probably Palestinian kids who feel the same way today. Actually, in the years before her death, Mother praised Yassar Arafat. “I am not Jesus Christ,” she used to say, describing her own personal foreign policy, “if someone strikes me I’m not going to turn the other cheek.” There are so many stories, so many anecdotes—because she lived in interesting times as the Chinese like to say, with such irony. But that doesn’t mean the stories are all true. If you ask me, as someone who studied her career through the years, with admiration, and love, the most important story that needs to be confirmed, thumbs up or thumbs down, the anecdote that must be determined factual or not, is whether Mother ratted out Angela Davis to the FBI.
This should be task number one for the Emory archivists because it’s a serious charge and one for which there is documentary evidence. There's probable cause. Once again, the odds are better than 50-50 that she did. It’s all a question of interpretation, really—what you believe constitutes selling out, at that time and under those “circumstances”—the era being the early ‘70s in San Francisco. Mother was covering cops for the Hearst paper, then the Examiner, now the Chronicle, and her boss was publisher Randy Hearst whose daughter Patty—nom de guerre Tania—was principal femme fatale of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the SLA, as in “slay.” Just like the incestuous inbred Dixie we had escaped, the Bay Area was also home to some freaky shit, the other pole politically but just as dangerous.
Everyone, it seemed—and it’s important to note—had conflicts of interest those days, including my mother. No one was pure in service of whatever ideology they believed in. Everyone knew someone who was on the run, from the police or from the draft board, it was a time when, if the cops found marijuana in your backpack you could still go to prison, especially if there was a hand grenade with the weed. The moral question of the day, in the Bay Area, was whether to call the FBI tipline. Mother even claimed that she saw Tania one day on the street, near the newspaper offices, while young Patty was being sought for bank robbery—we won’t go there, although it’s possible Mother did. The backstory this time: Before going to work for Hearst, my mother was briefly chief factotum for the black newspaper across the water, the Oakland Tribune, where she first got to know the Bay Area activists’ rules—there were none—and the players, who were many. This was like '69, maybe a year earlier or later, in Northern California and at the depth of the anger. The protestors du jour were the Black Panthers who were Oakland originals and, originally anti-police. The SLA came a later, and had more crossover appeal, fusing black nationalism and sheer fucking chaos, a la the SDS. My favorite anecdote from Mother’s career actually comes from this period. This is actually pretty good. In Oakland—she said—she received a telephone call one day from the mother of Panthers leader Huey Newton. This is so funny: Mother had written a story calling Huey an “urban guerrilla” and Mrs. Newton called the Tribune and asked my mother, “What you mean calling my son a gorilla?” Mother claimed that Huey’s mom was menacing—until Mrs. Newton understood the difference between a gorilla and a guerrilla. That too was worthy of Faulkner, except it was true. Or so Mother said.
At this point it was already relatively late in her reporting career, covering cops for Randy Hearst and trying to keep an eye out for Tania. Mother had to hump it, frankly, it was hard work. The Bay Area’s institutions were all under siege and a lot of civic interchange ended up on the police blotter. A la the Red Brigades or Bader-Meinhof, overachieving white and black kids, who had a “plan” to bring down society, were knocking over banks in the meantime. Today the goal of terror is to kill a lot of people but back in the day it was to kill certain people and Mother saw it all covering the police. There was the gunfight—some would call it a massacre—at the Marin County Courthouse where Judge Haley got killed, which was the bloodiest, somehow, even though the body count was comparatively low. The Marin massacre changed my mother’s life.
 And it was after Marin that University of California Professor Angela Davis did a runner.
Mother had good sources, apparently better than the FBI’s—she found out that Dr. Davis was hiding in New York. That is the backstory, that is another anecdote from my childhood. Mother ran the info in the newspaper and the FBI picked up Dr. Davis, on a charge of having provided the weapons used in the courthouse. That’s the story that my family accepts as factual today, more or less. It’s part of my memory, kind of—borderline, out there in the haze: in the periphery of what was important to me at age fourteen, going to school in the Oakland hills, not in the Badlands downtown, there were still so many shootings and so many shoot-outs in the Bay Area, as a teenager it was hard to know which ones to pay attention to. The SLA killed our schools superintendent, by the way. He answered his door one night and they shot him with cyanide-tipped bullets. It was all too much. Anyway, Mother wrote the story, Angela Davis got picked up and even if she beat the charges which she did—it’s still a legitimate question: Did Mother sell out The Movement? The answer is in a box at Emory.
My belief is that what Mother saw in San Francisco frightened her first and then changed her forever. Born in Jim Crow, Texas, raised on Chicago’s South Side in a pretty rough neighborhood, during the ‘30s, and having cut her teeth as a reporter in ‘40s film noir L.A.—she made a name for herself crusading against gangster Bugsy Siegel’s attempts to take over the black rackets, the vices. Mother’s crusade was not against the vices themselves, she wasn’t that na├»ve, merely against white ownership. She was never an easily-frightened woman: there’s no black actress of her generation to compare her to, if she had been white she would have been called “gutsy” and been portrayed by Katherine Hepburn in the movie. Until the Bay Area, when she seemed to lose her stomach for it all. Something about San Francisco scared her and made her withdraw inside herself, more than Tuskegee or Mobile or L.A. About this time, while still working for Hearst, she accepted an incongruous appointment by Gov. Ronald Reagan to an anonymous state board or commission. It was something to do with education. She was still “all for the emancipation of the Negro,” to quote her quoting Faulkner, what she couldn’t take any more was the chaos. She got us out, actually, relocated the family back to Los Angeles while she continued to commute during the week to work in San Francisco. There, she shared an apartment with my sister Michelle, also gone now, may she rest in peace, who was the newspaper’s film critic. It was too much for her, too. Michelle went mad in San Francisco, that’s my belief—that era, that time—she already had the predisposition if one can say that medically, and the Bay Area being in revolt didn’t help. To be young, artsy and black in a city with no moral foundations, where values were gone or in transition, with no barriers to behavior and in an era of no restraint—it drove her crazy, literally. But before Michelle lost it, still working as a young critic in the city, before she went around the last bend there was a T-shirt she used to wear, until it became soiled, and even after, that read in big black letters: “Rated X by an All-White Jury.”
            One Friday, when Mother was home in Southern California with her family on her day off, she got a call from the City Desk in San Francisco. The Symbionese Liberation Army was cornered in a “bad part" of Los Angeles, which meant a black neighborhood. Like my own family the SLA, which also viewed itself as a family, with Field Marshal Cinque at its head, had made the move to the Southland, for the climate you might say. The FBI and LAPD poured bullets into the house and a fire broke out and everybody inside was killed. 9,000 rounds were fired that day or so the Chronicle reported.
It was a brutal day in a brutal time and what the City Desk most wanted to know, when Mother came home to call in her notes, as the authorities identified the bodies—this is my memory and it may not be totally accurate but it’s close—what the City Desk wanted to know first and foremost, was Tania among the dead? Which she was not.
That was pretty much it, emotionally, physically and mentally for Mother. She could handle the civil rights movement because she grew up in it, even if it meant dealing with the Panthers who were actually always respectful of her and called her Mrs. Lomax, not by her given name—and certainly not “Sister,” or not more than once. But once you added the SLA and the Weathermen and everyone else who had a gun and a grievance, it was just too much for her. She started to shut down. After that, Mother was pretty much PTSD, and she retired at age fifty-five. She barely left the house for the next four decades.
But that did give her time to write.


Mother’s primary long work, the writing she was best known for but never published is a novel called The Ten Most-Wanted White Men, the account of a young brother who decides to kill the ten most prominent white bigots in America. One of them, Mother told me while writing, was Alabama Gov. George “Segregation Forever” Wallace, she used real names, that was the beauty of the work. This was before Gov. Wallace repented and found God.
Competition was fierce to be among the ten biggest crackers in 1960s America, believe me, just as it would be a hard call today—and how Mother handled the plot of the book which she told me about over the years, showed she was most concerned with planning the assassinations themselves. This was a mistake, it’s my belief. My approach—everyone in our family is a critic—would have been to spend more ink on how the brother chose his targets. That would give the work existential credibility and an inside track to a college syllabus, at least that’s my view. Having never read the manuscript there’s no way for me to judge quality but it’s always been my opinion that MWWM would make a good movie. My preferred casting would be a young Denzel, intellectual but burning inside with hatred of The Man, after some transformative event. He has to die at the end of course, this would be a Hollywood production after all, but he gets all ten targets first because, again, this is Hollywood. My mother was not a film person and she did not think in those terms but she too probably would have gone with a young Denzel and her thinking might have been along the lines of a brother come back from Vietnam, a combination of something setting him off—and he’s seen what the Viet Cong can do, you feel me? And having killed for Uncle Sam, he has skills. A black Rambo? You may say that’s been done already but it was new when Mother thought of it. She was trying for an effect closer to Joe Christmas than Sylvester Stallone, though. Southern Gothic. 
This was Mother’s revolution and, in some sense, mine. It's been bloody. The bottom line in these anecdotes from “The Movement,” and in our black lives, these last decades, roughly the span of my lifetime because Mother did not live to see the mountaintop—or maybe she just did, not close up but distant and in a fog. The single message that has been repeated time and time again for the last 400 years of our co-existence with white people: Resist any way you can. Luckily, “The Movement” has always been an amorphous thing and has been open-minded about what constitutes resistance. There’s been no fixed orthodoxy—no Little Black Book—although someone should write one now just to make it sound as if, for historical purposes, or for dramatic uses, black people were more organized than we really were. No master plan ever existed—a vacuum that left open the way for creative ways of taking the competition down. Violence aside, my favorite part of these decades of struggle, not that it’s over but we can finally see an end, has been the rhetoric—the words, longform like with Faulkner, Southern Gothic is a perfect title for the genre because it really was some freaky shit, having seen it up close, and shorter works like Mother’s, some of which appeared in the Black Press, paid for or not. As for the slogans, “Black Pride” never called to me because it was a given.
 “Black Power” did speak to me though because achieving it was more problematic. Rhetoric—words—conveyed power to us as much as what comes out of a barrel of a gun. We talked smack. What started as “sass” or whispered insubordination to Master—talking shit, if you will—gave us power and ended up an art form. Black practices of insubordination reached mythic proportions as we told white people, including cops, where they could go and what they could do when they got there. That's when a lot of the shooting has started, actually. In my mother’s world, pre-Obama, even whites who weren’t living in the South and who weren’t directly abusing Negroes were legitimate targets. Almost all the targets were soft with an occasional hard one thrown in, like a cop. Many of these “interactions” with law enforcement were described in the conventional press as moments of anarchy in black neighborhoods. Please. Violence can be a thing of beauty, Faulkner knew that, so did Mother, it just depends on who’s on the receiving end. There have also been a lot of word bombs set off through the years, by both sides, to go along with an occasional real one—although bombs are not typically a weapon associated with black people, except in Africa, driving the British out of Kenya or wherever. Speaking of bombs my older brother, who is the straightest guy in the world, was questioned by the FBI back in the day or so my mother said. This is an interesting anecdote of The Movement, whatever form that movement took.
Michael was at Columbia, or had just left—this is the story that Mother told—when a brownstone blew up in Boston that allegedly served as a bomb factory for the Weathermen. If you’re of a certain age you probably remember the incident. Michael’s name was found in an address book among the ruins. Or so Mother claimed. You may say, well, if you want to know, why don’t you just ask your brother? For fear it’s not true. As Mother also used to say, never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Asking Michael what happened in Boston will run the risk of turning a good anecdote into a factual error. Whether true or not, it was a great time to be alive: If you were breathing and black you were in the hardcore resistance or you knew someone who was. Being questioned by the FBI was no fun at the time, and may still not be, but it becomes a badge of honor today. Today, we have “Black lives matter” as a slogan and it’s been successful but does it really compare to, “Off the pig”? That would be my point.