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 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 mechanical 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 managers know 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, 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 if he squeezed the trigger on Her Honor. 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. River City 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, Sage is now on the bench doing the same thing she did in years past as an assistant D.A. under Ronnie Earle, sending the Black Man 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 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. Judge 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. 
Back in the day Ronnie Earle, whose name will soon appear on a county building housing prosecutors, ran the courthouse and among his assistants at different times were 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, African-Americans all, 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 in Austin 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 policing but of prejudice in the courts as well. 
“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 than now. 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. Wil Flowers swore Cliff Brown in as a judge and they both believe in the same kind of justice. 
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 Road 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. 
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. 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 as the newbie. 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. A 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 up to Police 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. 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 a lot which has not.

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 among racial minorities. 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. 
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 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 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 way, “I never say never.”
He’s everywhere at once. If you look at his calendars for a few months you may learn as much about him as 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 also show an occasional meeting with the FBI assistant agent in charge and conference calls with Homeland Security, probably for all the big-city chiefs, 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 Acevedo has taken 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 complaint. Since then, Copeland began showing up in other high profile cases involving minorities and the chief said publicly 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 was one of the first big-city lawmen 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, from white people 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 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. 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 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 starts to flow.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Black Power Revisited the L.P.

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 also a smaller place back then. Blacks involved in the arts, letters or politics knew each other because there weren’t many to know, if they were making a living doing it. 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, originally 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 and 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 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 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 that archiving her papers will prove one way or another, one supposes. Once, and this is an event 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 smaller 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.
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 might not see her work. One piece 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 and do. 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 have 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 reached the peak. 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. “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.” Mother shed blood in print. One of my siblings even described the rat-a-tat-tat of our mother’s Smith-Corona as sounding like gunfire, well into the night. 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, social themes you could dance to. With the exception of James Brown, 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's all coming together, often led by performers or athletes, as blacks everywhere seem to know what to do without being told. And we keep notes notes. We have the clippings because of people like 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: “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.
           Mother’s magazine work, though limited, was outstanding. There’s a piece she wrote about crossing the South by bus back in the day, 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 great story, from the front so to speak. 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 in the Comet until it died and then by Greyhound—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. Mother praised Yassar Arafat, in her later years. “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. But that doesn’t mean the stories are all true. The most important anecdote, her moment as a reporter in the Bay Area that will define her career, that needs to be confirmed, thumbs up or thumbs down, factual or not, is whether my mother ratted out Angela Davis to the FBI. Like in the examples above, the chances here are better than 50-50. 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—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 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 see her boss's daughter. At this point it was 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 a hard job to do. And dangerous. The Panthers respected her but the Bay Area’s institutions were all under siege including the Black Pathers and a lot of civic interchange ended up on the police blotter, her beat. A la the Red Brigades or Bader-Meinhof it was overachieving kids, all races, all colors who had a plan to bring down society and were knocking over Wells Fargo 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 San Francisco police. There was the gunfight—some call it a massacre—at the Marin County Courthouse, across the Bay, where Judge Haley got killed, which was the bloodiest, somehow, even though the body count was comparatively low. The Marin massacre changed her life.
 Because 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 of downtown, there were so many shootings and so many shoot-outs in the Bay Area it was hard to know which ones to pay attention to. The SLA killed the Oakland school superintendent, by the way, just before we enrolled. A brother with a PhD, he answered his door one night and they shot him with cyanide-tipped bullets. It was all over the top, and bloody. 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. 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, may she rest in peace, who was writing about movies. She claimed to have discovered Bruce Lee. It was too much for her, too, in the end. 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, values were gone or in transition, there were no barriers to behavior in an era of no restraint—drove her crazy, literally. 

              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 viewed itself as a family too, with Field Marshal Cinque at its head, had made the move to the Southland, for the climate, you might say. 9,000 rounds were fired that day or so the Chronicle reported. The FBI and LAPD poured bullets into the house and a fire broke out and everybody inside wasn't shot died from the fire and smoke. 
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 her, Mother not Tania although Tania took it hard too when they busted her ass a short while later. My mother could handle the civil rights movement because she grew up in it, the Panthers who always 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 or a grievance, it was just too much. She started to shut down. After that Mother  was pretty much PTSD, she hung up her notebook and tried to make sense of what she had seen, 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, which is hard work, too. One of the targets, Mother told me while writing, was meant to be 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.
This was Mother’s revolution and, in some sense, mine. It's been bloody. The bottom line in 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 collectively 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, 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 creativity 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.