Demonstrations against police brutality were seen across the nation over the weekend, spurred by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in Minneapolis who died in the hands of city police after officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for nearly 9 minutes while Floyd was handcuffed and face down on the street. Many protests in major cities, such as Austin, turned violent.
In Austin, protesters also grieved the recent death of resident Michael Ramos, an unarmed black man who was shot and killed by Austin Police in April. The Ramos case, which will be reviewed by a grand jury, ignited social justice groups across the city to call for the termination of Austin Police Chief Brian Manley. The killing of Ramos added another line to a long list of grievances against the police department in recent months. Others include a department culture in which racism, sexism and homophobia persist, according to a third-party investigator, and a training academy that former cadets say emphasizes a warrior mentality, as opposed to a guardian mentality.
Chas Moore, executive director of the Austin Justice Coalition, called off the peaceful demonstration his group helped organize for Sunday, May 31. The event aimed to bring the city’s black community and black leaders together in front of the Texas Capitol to demand change. In a roughly 15-minute explanation, streamed on Facebook, Moore expressed concern that the event would be co-opted by outside groups who want only to incite violence and anarchy.
“Over the past two-to-three days, it has been brought to our attention that a lot of white people and a lot of non-black people ... have co-opted and, in a way, colonized, like they do everything else, this particular moment," Moore said. "They have used black pain and black outrage to just completely become anarchists in this moment. Here in Austin, if you look at what happened yesterday, it was predominantly white people doing what they want to do. There is no way, with good mind and a good conscience, that we can have this event today because there is no way possible for us to ensure the safety of black folk."
Videos from the protests in Austin on Saturday, May 30, showed people looting stores, setting plants and cars ablaze and throwing rocks at police.
“Today was going to be the day where a lot of black ministers, black leaders, black community members were going to come out and we wanted to have that space in Austin where black people were going to be able to voice their concerns, their agendas, their wants,” Moore said.
Although organizers called off the official protest, demonstrations still took place downtown in front of the Capitol. Moore still attended and addressed the crowd before some began marching down Congress Avenue toward City Hall and west on Second Street.
Following a weekend of protests, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on May 31 declared a statewide state of disaster, which gives Abbott the ability to “designate federal agents to serve as Texas Peace Officers,” according to a release sent by Abbott’s office.
“Every Texan and every American has the right to protest and I encourage all Texans to exercise their First Amendment rights,” Abbott said in a statement. “However, violence against others and the destruction of property is unacceptable and counterproductive. As protests have turned violent in various areas across the state, it is crucial that we maintain order, uphold public safety, and protect against property damage or loss.”
Manley said the department would let protesters voice their frustrations but said officers would take action if chaos ensued.
"Our officers are working to keep the community safe with compassion, professionalism and respect, as the demonstration continues downtown," Manley tweeted May 30. "We appreciate peaceful protest and will continue providing a safe space for the community to express emotions."
On May 29, District 1 Austin City Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison contrasted the “heavy handed” approach by law enforcement against the protests with the “universally placid response to armed, largely white activists who swarmed state capitols across the country earlier this month to stand in opposition to restrictions designed to keep our communities safe from the coronavirus.”
“For those who weren’t convinced already, the year 2020 has laid bare the need for deep and lasting changes to our social structures and institutions,” Harper-Madison wrote in a newsletter addressing her District 1 constituents. “Now is the time, for the sake of true equity, for the sake of true justice, and for the sake of the true American promise, to stop tolerating intolerance and to stop ignoring the plight of our neighbors and of ourselves.”