In the past eighteen months or so, give or take a month, four of five of the most powerful African-American officials in the city have had their reputations tarnished and been driven from power: City Manager Mark Ott, District Attorney-in-Waiting Gary Cobb, Sheriff Greg Hamilton and State Representative Dawnna Dukes. Strictly-speaking Dukes has not left office yet but she has been indicted at great length and anyone who can conceive a positive turn for her career is free to dispute the likely outcome of the process.
What’s most interesting is that all four were exposed by the usually-sleepy local press: the city manager and sheriff by the weekly Chronicle, Dukes and Cobb by the daily American-Statesman. This public housecleaning occurred in the context of the continued gentrification of the only major city in the country that has consistently lost black population, our own version of ethnic-cleansing-on-the-Colorado, a process that now includes black public officials. It’s important to note at the outset that what follows is not a defense of any of these officeholders. Each committed sins: In the case of Marc Ott for example he was guilty, as his detractors often said, of spending as much time working on extending his tenure as he did running the city. Interesting nonetheless is that the Chronicle treated Ott well for seven of his eight years in office and only began attacking him after he suggested that SXSW’s owners—which also means the Chronicle—needed to start paying for the extraordinary municipal expenses incurred every spring staging the world-renowned privately-owned festival. Chronicle publisher Nick Barbaro wrote a cryptic yet threatening piece about Ott, the refrain of which was, literally, “Is he gone yet?” without ever specifying exactly what the city manager had done to justify the change in editorial sentiment. A few weeks later the Chronicle’s news side accused Ott of creating a hostile atmosphere for women in government, a counterintuitive charge in the Texas capital city where a majority of the City Council is female, as well as the county’s chief elected official, half the county commissioners and most of the school board—half of the legislative delegation—not to mention the out-going and incoming district attorneys, a majority of district judges, the fire chief, the new sheriff, the new (if interim) city manager and both the editors of the Chronicle and American-Statesman themselves. If women in River City are second-class citizens it’s a pretty good gig, actually. What Ott did do was to corrupt the system so that complaints about employment discrimination, both in city government and just as importantly in the private sector, were not heard. For that he deserved to go but we ought to be clear about why he went. It may be hard to understand that in the cases of each of these four powerful black people, outing the offending official was a good thing—but the overall dynamic is just another distortion in racial equity along the banks of the mighty Colorado, in which the press is oh-so complicit.
Assistant District Attorney Gary Cobb had election to the big office wrapped up until the American-Statesman published the financially-salacious details of a messy divorce, said to have been leaked by his ex. Cobb would have been a disaster for the minority community as D.A. but that doesn’t mean he was treated fairly. Again, we’re glad he’s gone but uneasy about how he went. Cobb showed, as noted by the Chronicle itself, an unhealthy preference for guilty verdicts over justice: He came to power as a New Age Uncle Tom and ended up as an old-style victim of The Man, the kind of biblical justice most Negroes can get behind, actually, it’s just odd that what goes around only seems to come back around for black officials. The best analogy is white policing—something we’re no strangers to in this community—in which a heavy hand is used and the people being arrested are almost always minorities even though we are the minority in the community, as we are among the ranks of public officials. That does not mean we don’t break the rules, it means that whites do too but they’re not being busted. So too, in the press.
State Rep. Dukes did nothing different in the Texas House of Representatives than anyone else—in other words using her public staff for private tasks—according to two former member of the Travis County delegation in a position to know. In fact, said one of her former colleagues, compared to the practices of her fellow legislators, Dukes wasn't even a particularly offensive offender. Her error was to do what she did openly and in front of a white assistant who didn’t like seeing a powerful black woman living, shall we say, expansively. Dukes’ real crime may be breaking an unwritten rule for blacks in power, that you cannot do as whites do, instead a Negro leader must remain completely above suspicion, a la Barack and Michelle. Once the Texas Rangers entered the picture Dukes was toast, because if the Rangers begin looking at any state legislator’s accounts there will likely be trouble, the issue here is that a black was chosen for scrutiny, just like police stops. Driving-while-black has a lawmaking counterpart therefore, a kind of legislating-while-black. In any case, since then the American-Statesman has waged a relentless anti-anything-Dawnna campaign, by a white writer looking to advance himself, overseen by white editors worried about poor ad sales, the kind of reporting we don’t read about Caucasian officeholders in the city.
Of the four black officials mentioned here, perhaps the only one who was guiltless was Sheriff Hamilton, taken down by the Chronicle for cooperating with federal immigration authorities before it was mandated in the Trump world. No one has accused Hamilton of ulterior motives, he simply believed in what he was doing (“Greg’s thing,” said a friend of his, also a high-ranking law enforcement official, “was cooperation among police agencies.” A more pertinent complaint against Sheriff Hamilton might have been custodial deaths, which were uncomfortably frequent in the jail he ran.) In the end, cooperation with the feds cost him his job—he knew the risks and accepted the consequences, although he was known to have held the Chronicle’s founding editor Louis Black responsible for the attacks on his office. During the most recent round of election year interviews the Travis County Democratic Party didn’t even invite Hamilton to compete for his own job, which may say more about the local ruling political party than about the sheriff who served it. These African-American officeholders have all taken pretty hard falls—Rep. Dukes is still falling but has the farthest to go and may land in Huntsville. If there’s any good news at all it’s that there aren’t many black people in power left in the city! It’s almost been a clean sweep. Through the process of elimination, literally, the press will have to start attacking white leaders if reporters want to continue to display their investigative chops. The idea here will be to offer a few suggestions of unethical public officials with whom to begin the new hunt, in the context of the latest and biggest example of racial disenfranchisement in town: who’s behind the ethnic cleaning this time and why we, the people of River City should be ashamed of ourselves and of our elected leadership.
And why several leading public figures, in the press and in government, a group that includes the mayor, the county judge, a state senator and university president all need to take those white sheets off their heads.
Mayor Steve Adler is a D.C.-born lawyer whose climb to power in Austin, after UT Law School, included working as principal aide to State Senator Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso, “St. Eliot” as he was sometimes called. Shapleigh was such a good lawmaker, so principled and far-sighted that, as one Hispanic former colleague recently mentioned, Sen. Shapleigh’s positions on the issues related to Latinos “were often better than Latino lawmakers’.” That doesn’t necessarily mean that Shapleigh’s goodwill rubbed off on Adler: As an executive assistant in the Texas Capitol, whether the big guy or big girl is Jesus of Nazareth, or the original Princess of Legislative Evil, the job is pretty much the same: running interference, counting votes, courting contributors, gathering intelligence and doing all the other things that the senator or representative him or herself doesn’t want or have time to do. Adler has also been a development lawyer in our fair city, a profession that led to considerable wealth working condemnations and foreclosures in this arch-typical hot real estate market, especially, one hears, although details remain murky, in and around the Domain.
Adler has been in office two years now in a tenure that has been marked by a studied lack of critical interest by the press. We have a multimillionaire developer as mayor of a city in the throes of rampant development but the mayor’s business ties are never discussed in print. In the case of the daily Statesman, still shedding jobs as the newspaper attempts to make a profitable transition to the digital age, editor Debbie Hiott cannot afford to anger business interests, which means the mayor and his erstwhile business partners. In this context at the Statesman practically “all real estate deals are good deals,” a neighborhood association leader bemoaned recently. Meanwhile over at the weekly Chronicle, ownership of South by Southwest has led to so many conflicts of interest in reporting and in editorial direction—on almost a weekly basis—that kissing the mayor’s ass has developed into an art form: a recent column by Louis Black described Mayor Adler’s “genius” which like publisher Nick Barbaro’s description of Marc Ott’s perfidy was lacking only in details. What this all translates into is no scrutiny in the Wild West that constitutes our recent business/government nexus, a kind of sweetheart relationship for Adler and other whites in power that Donald Trump couldn’t wish for in D.C., because in Austin it includes coddling by the mainstream press. For instance: the mayor’s recent push for a $720 million bond issue to fix roads and traffic was never subjected to the basic due diligence of comparing Adler’s private interests (that 66-page financial disclosure form would have been a good jumping-off point, although the apartment in New York and the condo in Cabo can safely be ignored) or those of his business partner or former clients, or those of his wife who is also in the land business, with what was being proposed. Was the bond package a fix-all for present transportation ills, or a guide to future development? Whose ox was being gored, which is invariably true of big public expenditures? Instead, the bond projects were evaluated only on their alleged merits—a kind of taking for granted of good intentions that minority officeholders do not often enjoy. The good news, if you’re looking for bad news, is that the mayor is so omnipresent in the city's affairs that he leaves a lot of tracks.
As with most powerful people, where Mayor Adler takes a meeting is a good guide to how important the person or persons sitting opposite him and the issues they discuss are deemed to be. Mayor Adler chooses his City Hall offices for conversation, for instance, often when dealing with the press. From that point of departure there’s a kind of hierarchy of outside venues, ranging from the casual Java Hut, for coffee, to drinks at the W, to dinner—also at the W, at the restaurant Trace—and even an occasional meeting in Adler’s apartment upstairs at the W, one of which was attended by, as his staff noted in his datebook’s margin, the city's major downtown landholders. To be a fly on the wall! Race and ethnicity, our subject here, actually kick in first in Adler’s office, not at the Java Hut or on the Eastside, or upstairs at the W, and in this instance the mayor’s own ethnicity is at play. Early in his tenure he met at City Hall with representatives of the Israeli government, selling Israel bonds. This is a revealing encounter since the bonds are not considered a particularly competitive substitute for their American counterpart: the Israeli version can be purchased only from Israeli government representatives, at an interest rate set by the State of Israel, and can only be sold back to Tel Aviv. (The University of Texas endowment held a few million dollars worth a couple of years ago, but sold them quickly, and the State Comptroller holds $65 million today, seen more as a vote of confidence in our ally’s hardnosed policies than as a competitive investment.) But Adler is Jewish and he was presumably showing solidarity when he listened to the Israeli pitch which means that his own ethnicity or cultural background should be fair game if those of black leaders is. And it is here, in this meeting of two fault lines, money and race—money and identity—that the mayor is most vulnerable, not in regards his relationship with his own community but regarding his relationship with ours. He’s trying to sell niggers out—or, simply, to sell us.
For example: The once-proposed and since-abandoned One Two East housing tower, on the east side of Interstate 35 between 11th and 12th streets, spitting distance from the Capitol, was described by the (now lone) remaining powerful black person in city government, Council Member Ora Houston, as the gateway to East Austin. The project would have determined the future of gentrification in the city, Ms. Houston warned as part of her opposition, but in the press the project did not receive one-tenth the attention that The Grove on Shoal Creek, in a white neighborhood, did last year—or the development dispute-du-jour, Austin Oaks, just received. Large, imposing, and a complete game-changer in terms of what had been allowed in black Austin up until that point, sitting just across the interstate from the soon-to-be-developed old Brackenridge Hospital site—Mayor Adler was pro this particular growth and spoke openly and in support of the project’s developer. But if you look at that developer, Haythem Dawlett, let’s ask a question: Is that the same Haythem Dawlett who was convicted of drug-trafficking in Massachussetts back in the day? Not that there’s anything wrong with that of course, this is Austin—we try not to be judgmental—but contrast that background and narrative with development projects in white neighborhoods where the mayor, City Council and city bureaucracy parse every comma, and discuss the developer’s bonafides, and you understand why blacks feel like second-class citizens. White neighborhoods get the greenbelts and set-asides and we get the ex-felons and arrest records? Another question, not to be picky: Was the same Haythem Dawlett whom the mayor spoke up for, as the guy to lead off redevelopment of the Eastside—was that the same Haythem Dawlett who was convicted for solicitation of murder of a witness in his drug trial? But hey, what’s a little solicitation of murder among neighbors? The conviction was overturned by an appellate court after all, not because the guy didn’t try to get his witness whacked, as the federal appeals judges noted wryly in their opinion, but because he was charged and tried under the wrong statute, in other words a technicality that apparently barred double jeopardy. The point here is that this revelation is not the result of an awesome display of investigative journalism on my part, but by entering the developer’s name into Google and hitting the search button, something that neither the daily nor the weekly has apparently done. How do you miss something like that? You don’t look in the first place—just as both the Chronicle and Statesman missed gentrification in the city until redevelopment of minority neighborhoods had reached a momentum of its own. There are in-depth updates in both newspapers every time someone proposes to pour a slab in a white neighborhood—but it’s laissez-faire and let-niggers-beware, amid an atmosphere of questionable political connections, on the Eastside. Frankly, Dawnna Dukes would seem to be the least of the city’s problems.
Councilwoman Houston is still hanging on but there’s evidence she too has been targeted by the press. In an amazingly tone-deaf display of white liberal hypocrisy, some months ago the Chronicle accused Houston of lacking “a sense of history” for attempting to bar the bulldozing of possibly-historic East Austin homes to make way for new development. The fact is that Houston is just as likely to be driven from office by demographics, the erosion of a black voting population in the city’s “black council district,” as by bad press. Single-member city council representation was a long time coming for minorities and may be gone for blacks before it’s had any lasting effect. Actually, it says everything that needs to be said about Austin that one of the most concerned voices about how the city has developed was the recently-departed police chief, Art Acevedo. He noted in an interview a couple of years ago that, yes, young blacks have left their homes in traditional minority East Austin, driven away by high rents, lack of a homestead exemption and even his own police force’s overzealous efforts. But Acevedo noted that, while East Austin is no longer African-American, on Friday nights and Saturdays the ‘hood becomes heavily-black once again as young bloods return from their new homes in the suburbs (which are now the relocation centers of preference for those forced out of the central city) to visit their elderly parents and grandparents who have refused to leave. What the chief didn’t say: that process is also repeated on Sunday mornings as blacks in other parts of the city and surrounding communities return to go to church. While individual African-American homeowners have left East Austin, the dozen or so black churches that once served a thriving community still linger as minority anchors in the central city. As the churches go, so goes the community. And there, once again, it seems Mayor Adler has been busy working to make way for development.
Gaylon Clark is lead pastor of Greater Mount Zion Baptist Church, one of the principal African-American congregations in town. “Mayor Adler has reached out to me on a few occasions. While running for office, he visited the church, stayed the entire worship experience, then came into my office and inquired about me and the church,” Rev. Clark wrote in a recent email. “His desire to know me and hear my story spoke volumes. No one seeking political office had ever honored me in this way. After winning the election, The Mayor invited me to his office for a personal conversation regarding my thoughts about East Austin and the economic and quality-of-life disparities in our city. I am not a preacher who is constantly looking for political solutions to solve moral and relational deficits in the community. I had very little to share with him from a political perspective. I did however share my concern about the quality of education in AISD, the need for expanded mentorship programs for African-American youth, and the continued inability of Austin to keep and attract African-Americans. I'm sure I was not thinking large enough for what he had in mind. His economic vision for Austin is huge and much more informed than mine. As he shared some of his dreams for our city, it was clear why he was the Mayor of Austin.” If you’re thinking that Steve Adler the former developer's lawyer may have had other reasons for reaching out to black pastors than merely sharing his vision, you may be right. Rev. Clark continued: “He and his wife came to our church in September of this  year. No agenda. He came just to visit. I told him about our November 6 entrance service into our new campus and invited him to join us. Can you believe he was there? I couldn't. He had just visited five or six weeks earlier.”
You can believe in the innocent interest of the mayor, as does Rev. Clark, who is not political. But you would also have to believe that Greater Mount Zion’s move from its prime East Austin location on Pennsylvania Avenue is unrelated to the serendipity of the mayor’s sudden appearance at the church doors, and that it’s a mere coincidence the old church property was sold, during the same period of the mayor’s vision, to a subsidiary of Eureka Multi-Family, a major developer which already owns several properties on Pennsylvania Avenue and is thick in the gentrification mix. Rev. Clark will not comment further because, as he notes, the church’s move was not entirely popular in his congregation. You can believe in the mayor’s big vision for East Austin—or you can just as easily believe that Adler took advantage of a black Baptist minister, a man who by his own admission is not politically-attuned, and in the course of meetings and discussions of East Austin’s future—the church moved out of the neighborhood. On the possible conflict of interest front, by the way, mayor’s spokesman Jason Stanford said in response to a question that neither the mayor nor his wife "has ever heard" of Eureka Multifamily, even though public radio has reported at length on the company’s buying spree in East Austin, and Eureka executives are regularly quoted in the local press. Stanford continued, the mayor “doesn’t think” he or his wife has ever done business with the company. “Neither he nor Diane,” Jason Stanford wrote, “have [sic] ever heard of that entity and they don’t think they’ve ever had any relationship with it.” Well, that settles that.
It could be worse. Literally. Today, if you go to the website of Huston Tillotson University, the historically black college in the heart of East Austin, you’ll see grinning pictures of Mayor Adler in cap and gown. Lately he’s been showing an “interest” in Huston-Tillotson as well, which has a 25-acre downtown campus that is a developer’s wet dream. The new Huston-Tillotson president has refused to answer inquiries about the state of the college, but she’s probably not the main danger to selling out, said someone who knows her and knows the institution, “It’s the board [of trustees] you have to worry about,” and the possibility that tens of millions of dollars will be dangled in front of the school, just as big money packages are being offered to black churches to pull up roots and go. Most historically-black universities in the country are in financial trouble, and President Trump has just threatened to cut federal funding. People are watching to see how everything plays out. (UT Prof. Richard Reddick, who grew up on the Eastside and who brings graduate students to HTU every semester, noted that "understanding racial dynamics in Austin is always a struggle, but living landmarks like Huston-Tillotson are reminders of black excellence despite societal challenges." He predicted that the departure of the black school would essentially be the death of the African-American community in Austin.)
You can’t underestimate the role of higher education in this dynamic, in fact. Historically, the institution of “institutional racism” in Austin has been none other than the University of Texas. While private colleges on the East Coast like Harvard and Columbia are only now coming to terms with their histories of slave ownership or profiting from the slave trade, UT—which was born too late to generate revenue from that particular business endeavor—has exploited minorities by taking their land. The entire eastern section of UT’s Austin campus was seized in the 1960s in the name of “urban renewal,” which blacks called “urban removal.” That appears to be happening again—on a much larger scale, and underlies Mayor Adler’s grand vision. Keep in mind that UT’s master plan calls for all growth to be directed east. Going south is not possible because of the Capitol complex, and going north or west would mean taking property from affluent whites which simply isn’t going to happen. Even direct eastward expansion is limited by a long strained but still-holding agreement between the university and Blackland Community Development Corporation, victim of the university’s older land grabs but which has fought successfully in recent decades to maintain a shaky status quo. That does, however, leave southeast.
To cut to the chase, the greatest gentrification is about to occur, on a scale that will likely wipe out most traces of black home ownership on the traditional Eastside—in coordination with the University of Texas’s “Innovation Zone” that will emerge from the new Dell School of Medicine. The starting point is the renovation of the old Brackenridge Hospital where generations of black babies were born. What has happened piecemeal up until now, a parcel at a time, is about to become a machine of ethic cleansing, pushing out colored peoples to make room for doctors, residents, students, researchers and biotech entrepreneurs who, like the faculty and student body of the medical school, indeed the University of Texas itself, will be predominantly white. The city, in the person of Mayor Adler, is pushing this vision, the county health district is on board and providing the legal means, and UT is directing. The mayor knows, the council knows or should know—Judge Eckhardt knows—the county commissioners should know or are merely unconcerned, and UT’s administration as always is up to its armpits in plotting. The plans are far-advanced and may be too late to stop, but in this wave of exploitation, unlike what has happened in the past, the hope is that some high-ranking whites are going to take a fall, too.
Blacks still lose more race battles than we win but the beauty of being African-American, not to brag or anything, is that we usually take a few white people with us. And, happily, there’s a list of who needs to go this time.
The latest wave of gentrification will emerge from the Central Health District, originally approved by voters as an aid to indigent healthcare but which has taken a decided swing toward big business. “Gentrification Zone” is a good name for the likely outcome. This kind of redevelopment is not an original idea on the part of Mayor Adler, Judge Eckhardt, UT President Greg Fenves or the Chamber of Commerce, a model has already been established in Boston, in San Francisco, and as the Times recently reported, in New York. “They’re not building all those bike lanes for us,” a former black elected official mentioned recently of the city’s proposed East Austin “improvements,” that signal displacement. For present purposes it’s the San Francisco example that provides the best analogy here.
Dean R. Clairborne “Clay” Johnston of the new Dell Medical School is a University of California San Francisco transplant where he was in charge of UCSF’s business relationships, “translational medicine,” the euphemism for the business of healthcare, the big-dollar commercialization of medical discoveries and medical devices. During Johnston’s tenure in San Francisco, UC created its Mission Bay campus, made possible by gentrification of two of San Francisco’s remaining minority communities, in Mission Bay and in Hunter’s Point, to form a complex of mixed-use medical research, healthcare and entrepreneurship exactly like what’s planned here. In Austin the 14-acre Brackenridge Hospital tract is now officially up for grabs as a number of development companies (most prominently Catellus, part of Texas Pacific Group, a big S.F. player which now features Dell Computer’s former CEO Kevin Rollins as a senior advisor) vie for the nod to establish our own Mission-Bay-by-the-Colorado. That’s business, part of Austin’s effort to attract high-tech, allegedly-clean industries like medical research. Fair enough. But keep in mind that Big Pharma is now more profitable than Big Oil, and local business interests and politicians want a piece of the action. Fair enough, again. The problem is that the “Innovation Zone” envisions the new researchers and academics living in the environment where they work, as in S.F.’s Mission Bay, and unless there’ll be housing on the Capitol grounds, or tents at UT’s football stadium, that will eventually mean bulldozing in East Austin. Hence, the bicycle lanes. That is why Eureka is snapping up property east of the interstate. That was also the market the now-discredited One Two East was directed at, in its filings with the city, formerly-black real estate for people working in the white Innovation Zone. What happened in East Austin in the past, one hipster-homebuyer at a time, will become a chain reaction when there’s suddenly a medical research/business complex next door. The principal institutional heavy here as in the past is the University of Texas, and its primary facilitator, State Senator Kirk “The Deal” Watson. Watson, first.
In a discussion a few months ago, one of the Statesman editors, while explaining the decision to look into Representative Dukes’ affairs, said there was some unease in the editorial offices about singling out a black public official for this kind of scrutiny when there were so many highly-visible white suspects in the mix. “Have we looked at Kirk Watson’s filings?” was the rhetorical question the Statesman staffer asked, because of Watson’s history of opportunism. Sen. Watson always has many irons in the fire: recently, again in the healthcare sphere, he has shown concern about mental health and the need to close the old Austin State Hospital, a move that will incidentally open up the State Hospital’s huge campus for redevelopment. For the record, Watson and Mayor Adler both refused to be interviewed for what follows, as has Travis County Judge Eckhardt, UT Chancellor Bill McRaven, Chronicle Publisher Nick Barbaro—who first agreed and then backed out—Dell Medical School Dean Johnston, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett and practically everyone else with a pulse who’s involved. But that doesn’t mean it’s not possible to read the writing on the wall at City Hall, and at the Travis County Courthouse, or the graffiti at UT. When a project is large enough, as is true of Mayor Adler’s “big vision”—to quote Reverend Clark—it’s hard to hide. And in the case of Kirk Watson, at least the senator has been consistent: he always follows the money. Often, he leads the way.
If you look at a recent Watson campaign finance report he raked in $531,000 and had about a million-and-a-half on hand. Take a calculator along with you to the Texas Ethics Commission to do the math because unlike Rep. Dukes’ accounts you won’t read Watson’s figures in the daily or weekly newspapers. His contributions are almost totally saturated, the trans-fat of the body politic: 95.5% from contributions over $1000, in other words special interests: trial lawyers, road builders, beer and wine distributors, healthcare companies, real estate interests and even tycoon Elon Musk. Watson gets a regular $5000 check from the Austin Police Association which we’ll come back to later, and also a regular $10,000 contribution from an organization called “Friends of UT” run by William “Dollar Bill” Cunningham, the former University of Texas System Chancellor (and present UT professor, holding the Free Enterprise Chair at the McCombs School of Business) who pushes anything that leads to further industry ties for the great university. Watson has received big donations from UT regents themselves even though he’s involved in Senate oversight of the university. The Dell Medical School is his baby legislatively and he’s still being paid for that successful delivery. Historically, Watson has had a far greater sleaze factor than Dukes: he was tied a few years ago to one of the major figures in the Pedernales Electric Co-op scandal, he was later dinged publicly over failure to disclose business connections, and most recently Watson’s law firm was hired to do work for the Travis County Central Health District with whom the senator closely works on the Gentrification Zone. One of the accusations against Dukes is co-mingling of campaign funds, money from an African-American festival she founded and her own private accounts, but someone involved in the investigation noted that Dukes patterned her financial practices in office after those of the head of the legislative delegation, Sen. Watson. If he were black or Hispanic the Statesman or Chronicle would have taken him down with glee years ago, certainly Watson’s business ties would have gotten a good going over, but like the mayor he’s well-connected, powerful and linked to the city’s white liberal elites. Watson himself is not particularly liberal but he does for liberals in Austin what the niceties of local liberal Democratic politics don’t allow them to do for themselves, screwing minorities being one. And that’s even without considering his time as mayor, when the most recent growth-at-any expense mantra took over City Hall and gentrification first began to wreak havoc on the Eastside. Kirk Watson started that as leader of the Chamber of Commerce and then as mayor in the late ‘90s. He conceived “Smart Growth,” the compromise between environmentalists and the Chamber that limited suburban building over a critical watershed in favor of dense development in the city’s urban core. Next time you’re sitting in traffic downtown or on Interstate 35 take a moment and look around and thank Mayor Watson for his vision, which was big like Mayor Adler’s is today. In any case the local press is unmoved: instead of an expose of the most compromised figure in public life we get Dawnna Dukes using her aide to pick up her kid. Certainly, race has nothing to do with it.
Specifically today, Sen. Watson has recycled his previous idea and produced its homologue, “Smart Healthcare,” in the form of the Innovation Zone: a mix of the medical school, Big Pharma (shorthand for the major pharmaceutical companies like Merck, Pfizer, Roche, Teva, Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline), the healthcare district and medical for-profit start-ups. To that end, the board of Central Health has been loaded to push redevelopment and business interests, not the indigent healthcare for which the district was founded by Watson’s predecessor, Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos. The most prominent of the loaded appointments by county commissioners was, in 2015, a professor from UT’s LBJ School of Public Affairs named Sherri Greenberg.
Greenberg has a resume to die for. She‘s a former director of the City of Austin’s finance department, she’s been on the city’s housing board and is a past five-term member of the Texas House of Representatives. Somewhere in there is a master’s degree from the London School of Economics. She’s a Democrat, with impeccable credentials: and despite many other demands on her time, she applied for the board of managers of Central Health and was accepted over potential minority representatives. What county commissioners say now, however, is that Greenberg failed to disclose that she had authored a 129-page paper entitled “Austin Anchors & the Innovation Zone: Building Collaborative Capacity” in which she, aided by her LBJ School students, argued for using Central Health for private business development. The ”study” written by Professor Greenberg and her students notes UT’s own history of taking land in East Austin, the famous Blackland case for example (property expropriation also led to construction of both the LBJ School and LBJ Presidential Library, although Greenberg’s report doesn’t mention that) and she proposes how to do it all again this time, noting the need for 800 apartments for UT-affiliated endeavors in East Austin. Buried on page Page 87 of the document is the worrisome proposal: "Central Health, Seton Healthcare Family, the University of Texas Dell Medical School, and other partners have the opportunity to leverage assets to promote the local private sector." This is, by the way, exactly what the health district says it’s not doing. Questioned recently at a Central Health meeting about her failure to disclose her interest in this narrative—something that has nothing to do with indigent care—Greenberg literally fled the building rather than answer. The professor is actually the central figure in this particular plot. She ties the university to the health district and to the city.
If you look again at Mayor Adler’s calendars, the single most frequent meeting with His Honor, every two weeks almost like clockwork, is Sherri Greenberg. They usually get together, the calendar entries note, for drinks at the W where the mayor has owned a couple of condos in recent years. Greenberg and Adler may have met when both were working at the Capitol and when you see the frequency of their get-togethers today—the mayor calls Prof. Greenberg his “senior advisor”—your first assumption may be that they’re fucking. This is Austin, we try not to be judgmental, whose business is it, if after having a few, they slip upstairs to wrinkle the silk sheets? Greenberg is a smart, attractive woman, you wouldn’t kick her out of bed for ethnic cleansing—actually, they are fucking—they’re fucking black people. The mayor is the biggest public proponent of the Gentrification Zone in elected office. Greenberg is now in position to execute the idea, and getting a handle on the truth about exactly what’s happening becomes harder every day.
At a recent Central Health meeting, while the board of managers was in a closed session discussing the hiring of a new executive director, at the prompting of Prof. Greenberg a staffer came out to the lobby to tell a reporter, “I can’t allow you” to speak to the members of the board, showing a compete cluelessness about the Texas Open Meetings Act but clearly indicating Central Health’s views on transparency. Despite the requests of suspicious community activists, county commissioners have declined to order an outside audit of the district books. County Judge Eckhardt has refused to release her email regarding the district—she’s demanding payment to search her files, even though the Public Information Act allows her to waive costs for providing open records. Prof. Greenberg whose special area of expertise at the LBJ School is open government has appealed to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to keep hidden any of her substantive email on the board. You can’t easily tell who else at Central Health may have a conflict of interest because board members are not required to file personal financial disclosure forms with the county, although we do know that the lead figure in the developing land deal involving Brackenridge Hospital, which is owned by the district, is Clarke Heidrick, a partner of silk-stocking law firm Graves, Dougherty. Heidrick, by the way, was serving as chairman of the board of the Austin Chamber of Commerce that is pushing for the Innovation Zone at the same time he was voting on the Central Health board to raise taxes. “I don’t think that my unpaid volunteer service to any of these organizations is or was a conflict of interest in that their missions are not in conflict with each other and I got no economic benefit from any of them,” Heidrick wrote in response to a question about his business ties. But the goals are at odds in this instance, as will be pointed out, and personal financial gain is not the only measure of conflict of interest. Meanwhile, UT remains unstoppable. The most recent appointment to the Central Health board was yet another LBJ School professor who actually has her office across from Sherri Greenberg on campus. Assistant Prof. Abigail Aiken is a Brit, a well-educated Northern Irish physician who has studied women’s health in Texas. She was a joint appointment by the city and county. On paper she looks great but what she really is—is another vote for UT.
County officials, including County Attorney David Escamilla, who is running interference for planners of the Gentrification Zone, are offering various explanations for Dr. Aiken’s appointment but the calculus seems strained. She is another affluent white person on a board that was created to facilitate indigent healthcare in the minority community. There are, after all, others in the city who know women’s health as well as Dr. Aiken, who isn’t even a native of the country much less of Austin—a black or Hispanic or Asian physician could not be found for a culturally-sensitive appointment, really? The major problem may be Aiken’s vulnerability to pressure, and that is the personal gain kind of conflict of interest that Clarke Heidrick mentions. At the LBJ School, Dr. Aiken is a tenure-track professor who hasn’t yet had her tenure vote, which means that the likelihood she will make any decision that angers the university employing her and her husband, who teaches at the UT McCombs School of Business, is nil. And she’s coming from a position of white privilege in a segregated environment—not Northern Ireland, either.
The LBJ School can be viewed as the center of institutional racism on the campus that holds the same distinction in this city. Rather than being a source of knowledge or tolerance the LBJ School is in the running for the most segregated public institution in Austin—beating out even the Dell School of Medicine, whose diversity profile includes eighty percent white faculty and seventy percent white students in a state that is majority-minority. The LBJ School’s racial breakdown of faculty recently released in response to an open records request is 58 Caucasians (a figure that includes Professors Aiken and Greenberg), 2 blacks, 2 Hispanics, 1 Asian and 1 Native American. And the School itself has already had a malevolent effect on the lives of blacks in the city, not limited to the land taken by UT. Bill Spelman, another professor at LBJ, was a longtime City Council member who spent his most recent tenure at City Hall, including a spell last year as a public safety consultant, attempting to convince anyone who would listen that there’s no evidence of racial profiling in our police force—something that no one with any sense believes, not even many of the troops on the street. Both Dr. Aiken and her husband also have biotech business ties, listed on her financial disclosure form with the city, which means she will now be in a position to vote to promote the same kind of business in the Gentrification Zone. The city’s vetting of conflict of interest allowed her merely to submit a statement by yet another LBJ School professor who wrote that Prof. Aiken’s business ties do not present a problem for her role on the Central Health board. Well—that settles that. Like the appointments of Professors Aiken and Greenberg there are till other dynamics pointing to a bad outcome for minorities yet again.
You may have read that UT Chancellor William McRaven recently attempted to establish a campus in Houston with a heavy medical research emphasis. It’s important to note exactly what McRaven did, spending $200 million secretly to buy land for the new site. He was slapped down by the Legislature not because anyone at the Capitol really objected to his tactics, or the general idea of improving UT’s ties to industrial healthcare—which is stated UT System policy—but because the University of Houston’s boosters objected to the competition. Now the chancellor’s considerable energy will have to focus on something else—and if he is to leave a legacy, and make good the Houston screw-up, Austin is a natural choice. The university could already be buying land on the Eastside through third parties, which is what was done in the past, using “Good Negro” community members to front land purchases in East Austin (the going rate for betrayal in the past is said to have been 4% of the purchase price) and no one might ever know. For the record, the Chancellor’s Office says that is not happening: “Any land purchase would be approved by the Board of Regents in an open meeting,” said Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, UT System spokesperson, “so there have been no secret land purchases.” But for UT the beauty this time around is that Fenves, McRaven et al don’t really have to get their hands dirty. A little economic push at the start, to get the Innovation Zone going, and it’ll spread east as market forces take control. If that fails, eminent domain has also been used here before to aid the university.
For minorities, the prospects get progressively worse. McRaven’s administration has announced the opening of a library or “biological bank” of tissue samples and DNA of patients from all UT’s medical centers, but has declined to say how the rights of patients will be protected. DNA is like gold in today’s medicine, but unlike gold—that is valuable even in small quantities—healthcare data must be voluminous to be of any value. Most healthcare databases in the country, said Dr. Paldeep Atwal, a Mayo Clinic genomics expert who was called in by the Dell School to consult, are of northern European ancestry whites, and now everyone’s goal is collection of minority data. “Basically,” Dr. Atwal wrote in an email, “a [biological] library allows you to have a well-defined set of patient samples to test for specific things, be it genetic changes or biomarkers to guide disease. With that you can make a test/treatment which can of course be commercialized.” In fairness to UT, Dr. Atwal said that no modern medical school can be credible without a strong genetics presence, but that’s not synonymous with Big Pharma, he said. “Data needs to be shared not commercialized.” But ask Dean Johnston, who is off a different opinion. His job at UCSF in “translational medicine” included recruiting black children from Oakland to participate in experiments in white San Francisco.
Dr. Johnston has said that in Austin he is not much interested in “clinical trials,” in other words human experiments, but the whole issue of minorities in academic medicine includes a significant history of lying by major universities: Oprah’s new movie (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) is a true story about a black woman whose cancer cells were stolen by Johns Hopkins University and cloned, in the first cloning of human cells, and sold over the years for study worldwide. The second most famous case along the same lines involves Dean Johnston’s own University of California, where the California Supreme Court ruled in a case involving UCLA that a patient whose cells are taken and exploited commercially has no legal remedy. Healthcare business ties have always been important in UC System and the evidence of that importance are leadership paychecks: the head of the San Francisco campus—which is solely devoted to healthcare and now provides the backbone of faculty arriving at the Dell School in Austin—makes more money than anyone in the UC organization including UC President Janet Napolitano. Dell is gearing up for the same kind of industry ties in Austin, and both Dean Johnston and his right-hand woman—the Dell School’s leader of "partnerships," Mini Kahlon, who was with Johnston at UC San Francisco and became his first hire in Austin—are being paid three-quarters of a million dollars each. Money like that has very little to do with education or indigent care, it’s about business. Dr. Kahlon is now on the board of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, which is hardly the expected affiliation of medical school faculty. The Dell med school has already created a think tank for start-ups, the new Texas Health Catalyst Advisory Panel that advertises “Life Sciences leaders with expertise ranging from product development and venture capital to regulatory issues and patent law.” What that has to do with patient care or medical education you’re free to speculate.
Practically-speaking, all the issues in the Gentrification Zone, from DNA to eminent domain, can be boiled down to the same dynamic, a lack of transparency. What’s really going on? Public officials are hiding their true aims although everything points to the School of Medicine: Clay Johnston’s business ties are not a felicitous coincidence in his choice to lead Dell, it’s why he was picked in the first place. Both UT and the county have for instance fought to withhold details of an agreement that established a UT clinic at Huston-Tillotson and whether, for instance, that includes data or tissue or DNA collection from patients. Meanwhile, the first major Big Pharma company to show an interest in the Innovation Zone is the pharmaceutical giant Merck, which just announced plans to include a “metadata collection” operation here. This is in some sense the beauty of Austin, a particular kind of white liberal mindset: what Republicans do in the rest of the state is create conflicts of interest, or have ethical lapses, but in River City those are “collaborations” that, eventually, magically, have transformed into an Innovation Zone. Where else could a healthcare district specifically created to provide indigent care suddenly become home to entrepreneurial start-ups and the 100-billion-dollar Merck & Co.’s metadata collection hub? On the border of a fragile minority neighborhood that the mayor claims to want to protect, he’s advocating the construction of a major medical research complex featuring an industry, pharmaceuticals, that in recent years has beat out defense and energy as the single most predatory and least ethical business model in the world. It’s one thing for African-Americans to have to say, “They stole our neighborhood,” it’ll be another thing entirely if, at some point down the road, we have to say, “They stole our neighborhood and our healthcare data.” The city’s role is paramount. Interestingly, Mayor Adler’s name appeared on the original incorporation papers filed with the Texas Secretary of State for the Innovation Zone but the city’s official participation has since been struck from the paperwork. Despite impediments to transparency, however, there has been major disclosure that is valuable.
Last year, a book was published by a former UT geography instructor, Eliot Tretter, Shadows of a City: The Environment, Racism and the Knowledge Economy in Austin, detailing past university land grabs—which apparently happen in cycles, every few decades. Tretter reports that the methods preferred by UT, secret land-buying, and collaboration with local government, that is happening now in the Gentrification Zone, were first employed decades ago. Historically, the book describes UT’s land acquisition in the context of the modern American public university’s efforts at growth—to establish a greater scientific profile in order to draw in federal research dollars—a way of conducting the business of higher education that started at the University of California in the ‘50s, followed by a more recent drift towards private industry support of university labs, also popularized by UC. This is exactly the business plan for the Innovation Zone. Prof. Tretter said in an email that University of Texas Press “passed” on his manuscript, not surprisingly, so it was published by the University of Georgia Press instead. Tretter’s book points out that typically UT has acted in concert with the City of Austin to dispossess minorities. (“Basically we came up with the proposition that the university’s expansion to the east was feasible,” city manager Bill Williams is quoted telling the press in 1966, explaining a prior land expropriation, “and could be tied into an Urban Renewal program.”) This time urban renewal or “urban revitalization” has been replaced by urban “innovation,” starting with a research complex that can dispossess minorities through “economic drift,” like fallout from a nuclear explosion.
Tretter spends a few pages depicting white liberal Austin, which is always entertaining, as he describes the rich vein of hypocrisy among the city’s Democratic leadership. Then there’s a great scene, that could be played to dramatic effect in a flashback, in the filming of The Gentrification Zone, although probably no one would believe it. It takes place during Kirk Watson’s tenure as mayor and involves Latinos not blacks.
The activist group PODER, which had environmental concerns of its own, including the dumping of toxic waste on the Eastside, was headed to a meeting at City Hall and opened the wrong door—only to find city staff deep in the process of carving up East Austin for redevelopment. Of course no one in Watson's administration had bothered to mention anything to the people living in those neighborhoods, and Susana Almanza, a PODER leader explained to Tretter: “As a matter of fact we stepped into it by accident because we were supposed to be at City Hall for a meeting and we kind of went into the wrong room and saw a big map about the Desirable Development Zones. The map showed moving everything east in Austin. We were like, ‘What’s going on with this?’ We were very much against the whole Smart Growth movement because the Smart Growth movement was, to us, really the change in language when they came in with revitalization . . . When they revitalized that meant getting rid of us, making new communities, and we were not going to be in those communities.” Ditto, the Innovation Zone.
It has occurred to no one in the local power structure, not the county judge, nor the mayor or university president—not the board of the health district either—that secure housing plays a big role in healthcare outcomes. What the health district or medical school are providing in terms of clinic visits for the poor and minorities will be more than offset by the stresses caused by losing one’s home; it’s almost as if the health district itself is a disease attacking the poor. At City Hall, the preferred storyline is that if there is wrongdoing at Central Health, Sen. Watson is the villain and Mayor Adler’s sole fault is failing to confront him. But The Gentrification Zone, like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, is the kind of major motion picture that can easily feature two bad guys, Steve Adler in the close-ups and Kirk Watson as a shadowy presence in the background.
A fine supporting cast is already on hand from Travis County. Directing and screenwriting? This is a Forty Acres production.
After last year’s police shooting of a mentally-disturbed black teenager, the officer was fired. He filed a Civil Service appeal although Chief Acevedo noted at the time that his own disciplinary decisions had been upheld in the past and he had no fears in this case. As part of the appeal the officer’s lawyers called Mayor Adler to testify, a smart legal move but also a great opportunity for black people to get some answers under oath from city leadership about African-American fears that inappropriate use of force has not been exclusively attributable to dumb or racist cops, but also policy at City Hall. As the hearing approached however something surprising happened. City Attorney Anne Morgan cut a deal with the killer and paid him $35,000 go-away money. The outcome of the settlement was that it kept Mayor Adler out of the witness chair. Then Morgan appealed to the Attorney General to keep the full details of the settlement secret.
A county commissioner recently defended Steve Adler, in general terms, saying he’s not the opportunist he appears to be, citing for example the mayor’s stand against the Trump executive orders on Muslims entering the country. But a review of the mayor’s email offers a less morally-motivated take—and is also instructive about his attitude toward minorities, in the healthcare context. After the Trump executive order the mayor’s office discussed reaching out by letter to Texas’s less extreme U.S. Senator, John Cornyn, but the focus was business not human rights. Adler’s media guru Jason Stanford wrote to the mayor and another city official in the loop about an early draft of the message to Sen. Cornyn: “The letter does not specifically mention objections and concerns raised by major employers such as Facebook & Google, by UT-Austin and by SXSW. This letter right now is a laudable statement of goals but does not say that the executive order threatens our economic well-being, which was the news value of doing the letter.” Adler replied: “Can we add the thought Jason raises… But note, Jason, we may not do any media or press on this letter. The main goal is to hope that Cornyn uses us and acts as a moderating force.” Stanford again: “Then we all need to agree on that or at least get on the same page. This is a great media opportunity to recast this [executive order] as uniquely anti-Austin. If we are privately attempting to ask to collaborate on the implementation of this EO, then that's something we should probably never write down in a public document.” Adler again: “Hell no to collaboration! I want to know, though, if Cornyn wants some cover to moderate the development of the laws and rules that will post date the horrible, and we’ll never work on, EO.” Stanford: “Then let's clearly state this without being jerks. Value the relationship [with Cornyn] but state the opinion clearly. And, if I may, citing the examples of SXSW, Google & UT creates a common interest. Of course he cares about these things too.” This is a pretty jaded pair, not to belabor the obvious. Jason Stanford particularly comes across as a douche but at least he’s an honest one, laying out the real calculus at City Hall. So, too, in indigent healthcare—it’s all about business.
Central Health’s Clarke Heidrick, for example, has been on the board since the health district was created in 2004 and at the time of his last reappointment a handful of local physicians wanted his position. County commissioners nonetheless chose Heidrick to serve again and Judge Eckhardt has since explained that he was kept on the board because of his expertise in women’s health. The guy is a lawyer. He’s there to do the Chamber of Commerce’s bidding. Distortions like these become a race issue because gentrification is, as slavery was, an economic crime, it’s not about skin color, it’s about money—and is the kind of wrongdoing that local government is gearing up to commit today. Yet, it is precisely blacks’ own poor history in this Southern city that might be leveraged now to achieve some semblance of justice.
Recently the mayor created a “racism task force” that has begun to reach beyond what he first intended and to show some signs of independence. The task force has already drawn some obvious connections between city government and what has happened to blacks here, in terms of zoning for example. But suppose that effort is taken to its logical conclusion and a “reconciliation commission,” of the kind favored after apartheid in South Africa, examines exactly how the bad outcomes have emerged: how single-member city council districts were delayed for so long, as well as the delay of a homestead exemption that would have protected house ownership on the Eastside long, long ago—and how exactly gentrification began to take shape. Let’s name names and get testimony from those who were making these decisions, especially the “gentlemen” of the Gentleman’s Agreement who reviewed minority candidates for council seats to select blacks and Latinos whom they knew would not rock the municipal boat. The city recently refused to release the names of any of these gentlemen but the persistent rumor is that this group of city fathers—and some mothers, presumably—often included the mayor, whoever that mayor was, which leads us back to people like Kirk Watson. Other powerful pols who are likely candidates include former mayors Lee Leffingwell and Wil Wynn, and U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, who was state senator at one time too. In the case of the mayors, the city has destroyed Watson’s financial disclosure records form his time in office, so it’s impossible to see who was giving him money, and the city attorney has already asked for and received permission from Attorney General Paxton to withhold old email from Leffingwell’s tenure, which might have elucidated why Mayor Leffingwell seemed so content with dubious police shootings. Watson and Leffingwell by the way were the fathers of the Innovation Zone—setting up the study group that led to the concept. It all gets pretty incestuous from that point on, you can’t separate the players without a crowbar: Leffingwell later endorsed Adler’s mayoral campaign and in return Steve Adler has helped retire Leffingwell’s old campaign debt. Part of that deal appears to be obfuscating Leffingwell’s history in office, as well.
And then there’s “The Lloyd,” pronounced like “the Lord,” Lloyd Doggett, our Congressman and the white liberal who white liberals aspire to be. For minorities he is mostly conspicuous by his absence. Doggett has never publicly questioned the behavior of the police, or called on the Justice Department to investigate local law enforcement shootings, and he has not called upon the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to look at the inordinate discipline of black children in local schools, either, perhaps because the teachers’ union that supports him has been opposed to greater scrutiny. These are exactly the tasks of a Congressman who represents a community not only whites. He could even have called upon the significant resources of the federal government’s various community outreach agencies to look at housing patterns in Austin and gentrification, but that might have led to scrutiny of Doggett’s own land holdings, which are major, and who his renters are. Doggett’s contributions and tenure in office—he is reportedly one of the wealthiest members of Congress, which we condemn for Republicans but not Democrats—go unexamined year after year because he’s a good liberal, and white, in a city where that combination goes unchallenged. Now he is reported to be fishing for federal funding for the Innovation Zone without the least concern for what that will mean. The public university that has been the largest recipient of federal healthcare research dollars in the country for the past few years is Dean Johnston’s alma mater, UC San Francisco, whose Congressional representative is Nancy Pelosi. Under the Trump administration that funding is likely to change, with more money going to Red State schools like UT and the University of Tennessee. Even though Austin is a Democratic town, Doggett already has his hand out in D.C., but refuses to discuss what he’s doing. “The Lloyd” illustrates that at the root of the problem of race in this city are two intertwined dynamics: coziness among whites in power, including journalists, and a lack of transparency. Most harmful to the interests of minorities—something that goes hand in hand with the skewed press—is the lack of transparency in government. And for that, one person is responsible: longtime Travis County Attorney David Escamilla.
Escamilla is said to have been struck by the vehemence of ill will displayed to him by City Council members a couple of years ago when he required them to sign sin-no-more agreements after they were found violating the Open Meetings Act. Since then he has backed off completely, especially in regards Central Health, where even former board members admit there has been a transparency problem from the inception of the district. As the county’s misdemeanor prosecutor for the past 14 years Escamilla has no problem sending blacks and Latinos and the poor to jail, on a daily basis, but he remains deferential to the powerful and influential, in other words he's afraid. Statesman editor Debbie Hiott said something similar once in an interview—that whenever the newspaper questions Austin’s liberal credentials she gets a shitstorm. Mark Ott, ditto: At a conference a few years ago at Huston-Tillotson, seated next to Rep. Dukes, the then-city manager mentioned that when he realized the city had long cheated the Eastside of infrastructure investment, sewers and streetlights for example, and he mentioned the fact to liberal whites, white smiles at the new, black city manager suddenly began to fade. For his part Ott decided to just drink the Kool-Aid and enjoy himself while he was here. He lasted until he questioned the $2 million reverse-bribe from the city to the Chronicle—not sending the bill for police overtime at SXSW—in exchange for good press for the mayor. Escamilla is now largely responsible for keeping everything under wraps. It’s notable that the county attorney, like other county officials who are so opposed to the Republican administration of the state, has no problem appealing to Attorney General Paxton (whom County Judge Eckhardt calls “crazy”) because the county knows the Gen. Paxton has no interest in enforcing disclosure.
There’s a passage in Tretter's book describing a past land grab, which allowed UT to grow into the area of the campus now just west of the Interstate and which ought to send a chill through local public officials: “ . . . approximately one thousand people were displaced, mostly African Americans, and countless businesses, many African American-owned, were forced to close. While many people received relocation funds, the money was insufficient for people to buy a new home. The result was that even more African Americans settled in east Austin because it was the only place they could afford to live, and these communities became much more isolated and increasingly disadvantaged.”
The descendants of those very displaced persons are the people whom the mayor, county judge, state senator and university president are now pursuing. You’re struck reading Tretter’s account that many of the neighborhoods in East Austin were formerly white (Robertson Hill was once populated by white working class Swedes, for example) but in the 1920s when the city officially segregated, whites moved west and blacks were transported east. Land is always changing hands—not just here—but whites chose to leave the Eastside in support of segregation, while blacks have been pushed. It’s all pretty depressing and has led to soul-searching among blacks ourselves. Indeed, one of the recurring themes among African-Americans intellectuals is that outcomes have been so bad in part because—as a black academic recently explained—in this town there’s been “no critical event,” like a civil disturbance—a riot in other words, as has happened at one time or another in most major American cities, something to remind white people what real consequences look like. Yet another theory is that such a critical event recently happened. The date was Nov. 6, 2015. On that evening, State District Judge Julie Kocurek arrived at her Tarrytown home and was met by a loaded pistol. A black finger was said to have been on the trigger but whether it was an African-American hit, or not, it was a watershed moment for the local black community.
Kocurek is a former prosecutor who was appointed to the bench as a Republican, by Gov. George W. Bush, and switched parties in order to keep her seat. This leopard has not lost her spots. She has made a career of sending minorities to prison, both in the D.A.’s office and on the bench, breaking up families, disrupting lives and helping to make the black community vulnerable to just the kind of economic exploitation that is planned today. Kocurek is said to have lost a finger that night, as she learned the consequences of targeting African-Americans—the alleged shooter is a black male whom she had threatened with prison for a non-violent offense, justice as usual in the Travis County Courthouse. That night Her Honor learned a lesson that others, in the context of the Gentrification Zone, may also need to learn—but it doesn’t have to be the same kind of gun-barrel instruction. Targets need to be selected, yes, bullseyes drawn, but the consequences can just as well be political as traumatic, intellectual as physical, social rather than blood-stained. We don’t have to “burn this bitch down,” so to speak, no need to throw Molotov cocktails—that, by the way, don’t even need to be lit if the bottle is completely filled and there’s an airtight seal with the cap. We don’t have to take to the streets and overturn police cars that can weigh more than 3,000 pounds and require as many as ten people on one side to flip effectively. We don’t have to write “Black Power” on the side of the courthouse or on the white walls of the Governor’s Mansion, just a hundred yards east of the courts—or disrupt a Regents meeting, located on the ninth floor of Ashbel Smith Hall a few short blocks south of the Governor’s Mansion.
We don’t have to shout down Mayor Adler or call him a “lyin’ ho” or a “lyin’ white bitch” the next time he comes to the Eastside to bullshit us or to explain his “big vision,” which doesn’t include niggers. Nor do we have to somehow get upstairs and trash his crib in the W, partaking from his liquor cabinet or smoking up his herb. It’s his home and someone’s home should be sacred, which would be the point here. After all, a drink thrown in the mayor’s face would be as effective as gunfire, especially for a white liberal like His Honor. Peaceful protest can be more powerful than gunfire and has the added benefit that you don’t go to jail afterwards.
In the case of the Gentrification Zone we're lucky that a preliminary list of targets is already available, evidence from the perps’ own mouths, the list ordered not necessarily by complicity but including those guilty both of acts of omission and commission. It’s a baker’s dozen—crackers, not cookies—and unlike Mark Ott, Sheriff Hamilton, Assistant District Attorney Cobb or Rep. Dukes, all refreshingly whitebread, with only two exceptions.
And those two, you would never know aren’t white from their behavior:
1) Mayor Steve Adler
2) County Judge Sarah Eckhardt
3) Sen. Kirk Watson
4) UT President Greg Fenves
5) American-Statesman executive editor Debbie Hiott
6) LBJ School Dean Angela Evans
7) Travis County Attorney David Escamilla
8) Dell Medical School Dean Clay Johnston
9) University of Texas Chancellor William McRaven (Careful, he’s known to carry a piece at all times.)
10) Dell Medical School Assistant Dean Mini Kahlon
11) Professor Sherri Greenberg
12) Professor Abigail Aiken
13) U.S. Congressman Lloyd “The Lloyd” Doggett
The point of drawing up a list, and checking it twice, is that if blacks continue to turn the other cheek—as Rev. Clark might advise, relying on the Good Book for guidance—whites’ll just slap that one too. Which is what has already happened here, in the schools and at the university. Now it’s healthcare, to be followed by another round of land expropriation. Instead of Jesus’ teachings, there’s a better lesson to take to heart, from Malcolm X: “By any means necessary.”
A recent visit to the home of a principal race offender shows how confrontation might best be achieved in the white liberal mecca, the Live Music Capital of the World, starting with the institution that most threatens black lives in our fair city, the University of Texas.
Dr. Gregory Fenves lives at 3714 Meredith Street in West Austin—Tarrytown, actually. If you’re coming from the Eastside you take Enfield Road a couple of blocks past Exposition and turn right on Roadrunner which runs into Meredith. Left on Meredith and the Fenves home is a few blocks down on your right. A nice neighborhood, for a couple of million dollars you too can find a fixer-upper.
Took a few trips to catch anybody at home so it offered a chance to scout out the ‘hood. Tarrytown is a pretty dodgy locale for the visiting black male, even today, kind of the white equivalent of a Chicago housing project in years past—except this is a pricey ghetto and includes many of the people who commit race crimes in this city, all living in this same comfortable zip code. Judge Kocurek met her fate in a driveway nearby. Prof. Greenberg and her husband are said to live somewhere close, too. Riding my bike to President Fenves’ house there were people out jogging and walking dogs—kids playing—folks working in their yards, all of the Caucasian persuasion, not that there's anything wrong with that. The Fenves home had an alarm company sign on the grass and “no soliciting” above the doorbell. On some level, both admonishments spoke to me but after riding all the way out there, twice, my feeling was, like, fuck it. Especially since the second time, The Man himself answered on the first ring. Before even pushing the doorbell however it was clear how this visit was going to play out.
My guess was there would be no invitation inside and that two minutes, max, would elapse before the sound of far-off sirens approaching. It was partly cultural: There was an apprehensive look on Fenves’ face as he opened the door, not exactly welcoming, you feel me? He could have come to the door wearing only women’s panties and it wouldn’t have made any difference to me as an open-minded black male but, as it was, he was wearing a burnt orange polo shirt with a little white Longhorn logo over the left breast. He doesn’t get enough of that Longhorns shit Monday through Friday, he wears it on the weekends at home too? Oh well, this is Austin—we try not to be judgmental—especially in the black community where our mantra is each to his or her own thing. No matter how bizarre.
He shook hands with me. You have to give him that. “What’s your name,” he asked warily, after he accepted my hand, looking relieved that it wasn’t the Jehovah’s Witnesses, “and who do you work for?”
“My name is Lucius Lomax.”
My concern at that moment was to keep an eye on his hands. The security company sign in the yard meant nothing. The home of the president of the University of Texas would have two, probably three panic buttons—that was my guess—one in the bedroom, one in the kitchen and perhaps one beside the front door where Dr. Fenves was now standing: the alarms would sound at UTPD but because of the distance to the university the local pigs would be there first. Right and wrong also played a role in my mental calculus: the African-American’s noble and ethical spirit is never far below the surface, even in potentially-disagreeable interactions with The White Man. In an unscheduled interview at someone’s house you can’t push it—you just don’t have that right. The whole issue of this visit was about respecting people’s homes, after all, even if Dr. Fenves didn’t understand that—and the minute this motherfucker’s demeanor changed from annoyed to pissed off, my bike was laying in easy reach in his front yard, waiting to whisk me away. In the meantime, since it was probably going to be a brief interview, it was best to go straight for his solar plexus.
“I only have one question. Why are you trying to gentrify East Austin?”
“We’re not going to do that,” Dr. Fenves said, still standing in his doorway. It was a Saturday night, six p.m., and clearly he wasn’t going to invite me in for a libation. That’s cool, a lot of wealthy whites have not had a proper upbringing, we understand that on the Eastside.
In this conversation President Fenves was actually at a disadvantage compared to, for example, Mayor Adler or Dean Johnston. Both the mayor and the medical school dean have big I-won’t-come-in-your-mouth smiles, and considerable charisma to call on. But Dr. Fenves is a scientist by training, which limits his charm resources, and his face is the face of institutional racism in the city today: it’s an interesting face nonetheless. Saw him last year at a Regents meeting and he looked completely different—older, tired, or under strain, and his face was puffy. The agenda that day included right-to-carry, Chancellor McRaven was busy explaining to the Regents that the new polymers in a modern handgun won’t trigger a metal detector, and the President of UT Austin looked like that particular discussion was not why he got into higher education. At his home in our Saturday get-together he looked relaxed, healthy and in good spirits, with the obvious exception of my visit. For me though this was the scary Dr. Fenves. Mayor Adler and Dean Johnston are the public faces of the Gentrification Zone, doing all the press and talking all the bullshit—Prof. Greenberg is busy working out the mechanics, in her role as “senior advisor”—but Dr. Fenves is the intellect behind what’s happening. He’s another University of California transplant, by the way—Berkeley, this time—and to a guy like him who sees an opportunity to put a big research deal together for his institution, black people are just a detail to be dealt with. “We’re not doing an Innovation Zone,” he said, still standing there in his doorway in Tarrytown, a really nice crib by the way, drive by and check it out. Bring some brothers along so that President Fenves’ll get an idea what it’s like to see his neighborhood invaded.
“We’re not doing a Mission Bay,” he insisted, “we’ve brought in Merck, that’s all.” He added, beginning to close the door on me, “You’ll have to go through my office. Thank you.” Would that be the same office that had refused me an interview for the past year? Oh okay, good to know.
Of course he was lying but you don’t rise to the top ranks of the University of Texas by telling the truth. It’s a different skill set entirely. He should be held to it, though, it came straight from the horse’s mouth: UT is not interested in the Innovation Zone, an assertion that, we will one day find out, probably sooner rather than later, is total bullshit. But he said it. And he even added a revealing comment. “We’ve brought in Merck.” No one mentioned Big Pharma until he did. Score one for the Black African Militia, a forced error on the part of The Man, although there are plenty of white women involved in promoting the Gentrification Zone, too. The city is acting like Merck just showed up, having heard about Austin’s great reputation, bars on Sixth Street, Barton Springs, the Silicon Prairie, whatever. The company was recruited by UT. In Dean Johnston’s calendars, also released in response to an open records request, he was already meeting with Merck last year. That’s what Dean Johnston was brought here for, big business, not to educate young doctors.
Anyway, that evening Dr. Fenves had already cast a critical look on where black people live and now we’ve done the same for him, seen him at home in his 'Horns get-up. What’s more, that evening at his house Dr. Fenves realized—and this was his take-home lesson—we now know where he lives.
Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, former Pro Bowl Dallas Cowboy, and San Francisco 49er, and former assistant to Gov. Ann Richards, tells a few good stories from his sixty-odd years.
Recently, sitting in the anteroom outside City Council chambers, waiting to address the Board of Adjustment on the subject of a property-line dispute, he told a good one about being stopped by a couple of Bubba-like white police officers as he was speeding along the roads of East Texas, coming home from Huntsville where he'd talked to a state prison crowd at the governor’s behest. Hollywood said he was speeding like a motherfucker, guilty as sin, going so fast that by the time the county pigs and state troopers stopped him they already had their guns drawn and immediately jacked his hefty ass up over the hood of the car while they searched him.
So, one of the cops, let’s say one of the state troopers—because they know how to read—had his driver’s license out and was looking at the name. The situation was tense: It was night time, “Escape from East Texas” you could call this screenplay because the prudent Negro doesn’t want to be out on the road between Dallas and the Louisiana state line after dark. At any moment Henderson could have been shot reaching for a weapon he didn’t have or clubbed to the ground because a sheriff’s deputy “feared for his life.”
To set the scene the trooper has his flashlight in one hand. He’s shinning it on the license and then in Henderson’s face. Next, one of the pigs puts two and two together.
“You wouldn’t be—”
And then they’re all crowding around. Cowboys fans, looks like.
They got his autograph and sent him on his way. That was his account, with certain editorial commentary on my part. The point here is that sometimes there is justice for the black man in Texas, even if not in Austin, the liberal mecca. We may—like Hollywood himself, standing beside a Farm to Market Road in Peckerwood County—get the recognition and respect we deserve. The second story he recounted however was more to the present point. He had received a letter, he was saying—still sitting there waiting for his turn in City Council chambers—from the University of Texas, which is not his alma mater.
Thomas Henderson was born in East Austin and is still a property owner there, together with his brother. So, in the letter UT asked him if he wanted to “donate” his East Austin property to the university. Repeating UT’s request, Henderson paused for dramatic effect. Hollywood is one of the former NFL players who is party to a lawsuit about traumatic brain injuries and the league’s lame reaction to same. Having said that, Henderson doesn’t appear to have lost any steps from hits he’s given or taken. Despite the long lines of cocaine, and the women—the rough play and the road trips—or perhaps because of them, this is a brother who has led an extraordinarily fortunate life, including winning the lottery a couple of times, in addition to owning a Super Bowl ring. But being asked to donate his mother’s home to the University of Texas took this famous Negro’s breath away.
“How much money does UT have?” he asked rhetorically, fixing his interviewer with an amazed stare.
That’s twenty-eight billion dollars, actually: the current size of the university endowment and other holdings, give or take a few hundred million. UT has twenty-eight billion dollars and, we now know, no shame.