Monday, August 24, 2020

Racism and the origins of Austin policing: A history lesson for the governor

Governor Abbott is upset that a Texas school teacher compared police officers to Klansmen. My guess is that there's more to the story than is being bandied about in social media, but Abbott tweeted:

A teacher in a Texas public school comparing police officers to the KKK is beyond unacceptable.

It’s the opposite of what must be taught.

The teacher should be fired.

Grits is here to push back on "the opposite of what must be taught." If we're going to be honest about the history of policing in Austin and in Texas, it's impossible to avoid its racialized nature.

Last year, as the Austin City Council debated arrests for Class C misdemeanors, Dr. Kevin Foster, a Black Studies professor from UT-Austin, offered up some more-widely-known-than-acknowledged history about the origins of the Austin Police Department while testifying on behalf on Grassroots Leadership.

In the 1860s, when Texas was an exceedingly dangerous place for African Americans, Austin happened to be less so. As a result, African Americans migrated in and joined the black population that was already present. They came seeking safety, autonomy and opportunity. This is why we had Kincheonville, Clarksville, Robertson Hill, Wheatsville, Gregorytown, Red River, Reyna Branch, and a dozen other freedmen communities – each with an autonomous school and church.

And then we messed up. Our response to the Black presence was to build a police force, criminalize Blacks, and control them. In June 1865, the mayor and city council met to deal with “the fact that a large number of Negroes turned loose by their owners are congregating in and about Austin, as also perhaps desperate white men, making it necessary to organize a police force to deal with them.”

And how did we put our new force to use? Council immediately passed an ordinance to deal with “all able-bodied Negroes who have abandoned the service of their employers, for the purpose of idleness, or who are found loitering or rambling about, or idly wandering about the streets or other public thoroughfares.” Today we no longer whip the idle or lease them to the lowest bidder, as we did then, but we do still saddle people with debts that make their escape from homelessness less likely. And we do, by the way, still disproportionately target Black folk.

That history, where the Austin PD was created specifically to enforce new laws aimed at black people after Lincoln freed the slaves, isn't so distant from the roots of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan, despite the governor's protestations. As late as 1959, the department only employed seven black officers, none of whom were empowered to arrest white people.

Don't get me wrong, I think comparing 2020 police officers to Klansmen is unfair and misleading. But a knee on your neck is a knee on your neck, whether the person on top of you is wearing a badge or a hood. Let's not mislead about that, either.

MORE: I got an angry email from a cop who should know better (election season makes people crazy!), so please let me clarify. The point of this post isn't to accuse any peace officer today of racist intent based on what happened in 1865. I can't know your heart and don't care about saving your soul. My point was to acknowledge that, like the Klan and the 1873 state constitution, the Austin Police Department is one of numerous institutions created after the Civil War in Texas for the primary purpose of suppressing black people and denying them basic human rights. That's not an opinion, it's the recorded reason APD was created.

This should come as no surprise. It's why Texas seceded. It's the hidden history underlying everything every Texas 7th grader is taught about the state. (For non-Texans, that's when every kid here takes a year-long Texas history class with a textbook fatter than a Catholic Bible.) Does that mean that's the only thing police do? Of course not.  But in Austin, and probably many other Texas towns, it's why they were created and, to a greater extent than one may care to admit, that history remains embedded in current policies and practices.

To the extent the complaint is institutional racism, not individual intent, how can police confront those embedded harms? On that score, let me recommend Yale law prof Monica Bell's excellent "Anti-Segregation Policing," out in June, which argued that cops enforce segregation by policing neighborhood borders and constructing neighborhood reputations as "high crime" or "racist," all of which rings true for Austin. For Bell, "urban policing involves daily reiteration of definitions of geographic spaces as bounded and racially marked, thus perpetuating residential segregation." Grits intended to write something longer about Bell's article later on, and may still, but mention it here in hopes my unhappy correspondent will read it and perhaps think about the job in new ways.

Grits doesn't pretend to have all the answers, but we won't find them by ignoring history.


Anonymous said...

Bad comparison. How many Black people has the KKK killed lately? APD is way ahead of them.

Gadfly said...

Hey teacher? Just read your kids some pages from Doug Swanson's new book about the stRangers, and wait for Abbott's reaction.

Jennifer Laurin said...

I just think it's a bad and unthoughtful take to interpret the graphic that's been circulated as "comparing" 2020 police to Klansmen. It was not a "compare and contrast" exercise. It was a lesson in historical continuity and the durability of dynamics of racial oppression, even when the precise mechanism *does* change or evolve.

Anonymous said...

Okay Grits, I'm with you part of the way on this and I understand you are talking about history. I've seen this problem between the police and certain communities coming for at least a decade. There is blame on both sides. However, your appreciation of the quote from the Yale Law Professor disturbs me. She is blaming the police for creating high crime areas? Come on. This is part of the problem. These communities are suffering from greater problems than their relationships with the police. To say the police are creating high crime areas is absurd and that kind of thinking prevents people from facing the real problems in these communities. As long as these communities are constantly told that nothing is their fault and every problem they have is the result of racism, they will never see and address the real problems.

Anonymous said...

SECEDED | meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary
Anonymous View
4 days ago ... to become independent of a country or area of government: There is likely to be civil war if the region tries to secede from the south."

Anonymous said...

Secede..that's a pipe dream you hear from idiots.

Anonymous said...

Monica Bell's theory of police enforced segregation and real life, on the ground gentrification can't both be true. I've been in Houston over 45 years and two weeks ago, I drove around areas where I first lived and worked. Areas that were once black and Hispanic have gentrified and areas that were once white, such as Alief where I live, have become Asian, black, Hispanic and white.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@11:10, she's not blaming police for creating high crime areas. She's describing the police role in defining areas as high/low crime when some of the metrics are under their control. E.g., is Charlie sector more dangerous because more people are arrested there, or are more people arrested because that's where we perform all the stop and frisks and troll the streets with a license-plate reader looking for warrants? And don't neglect her criticism of police defining some neighborhoods as "racist." I've heard it many times: cops' reactions are justified because of racist expectations of the people they're policing. Both that and the "high crime" moniker rely on stereotypes and myopic data-definition choices. She's describing cops' role more broadly in the public debate, not blaming them for the existence of crime. Read her paper if my summary led you to a different conclusion, that's not right.

@11:13, I have lived in central East Austin from 1990 to present (wife's been here a bit longer), and moved in when crime peaked and the neighborhood was policed very differently from now. My experience reinforces Bell's thesis: When this was a mostly black neighborhood, it was policed like the military was occupying a hostile region. Today it's Yuppieland, we barely see the cops, and when we do they're more deferential, polite, don't go around shoving or shooting people gratuitously, etc.. The neighborhood changed, sure, because land so close to the capitol/downtown was/is so valuable. But when it became a predominantly white neighborhood, its relationship to police changed. The transition between those periods was a bit rocky, as well, as it took time for police to adjust to the neighborhood's new expectations.