Austin rally focuses on black lives and black voices

Austin Protests

AUSTIN (KXAN) — On the tenth day of demonstrations in Austin, protesting police brutality as well as the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Michael Ramos in Austin, thousands of people attended a rally which focused on Black lives and Black voices. Despite temperatures that approached 100 degrees, thousands of people of all ages made the march from East Austin to the Texas Capitol grounds.

The organizers say everyone was welcome to attend this event “but we will be centering this moment around black voices, black stories, and most importantly black solutions in this time!”

The rally was organized by local group Austin Justice Coalition which has been active in conversations about police reform and equity in the city in recent years.

(KXAN/Todd Bailey)

“Black Austin Rally and March for Black Lives” began at 1 p.m. on the campus of Huston-Tillotson University, which identifies itself as Austin’s only HBCU (Historically Black College) and Austin’s oldest institution of higher learning.

Austin Justice Coalition executive director Chas Moore explained that the focus of this week’s rally was to re-center the event around black lives and black history in Austin. He said it was important to start this rally at Huston-Tillotson because the university reflects “the pinnacle of Black achievement in the community here in east Austin. “

“I thought it was important and the community members that reached out thought it was important that we highlight the east side [of Austin], if we’re talking about Black Lives Matter, if we’re talking about the issues the community faces, we have to go to the east side,” Moore said.

Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette, president of Huston-Tillotson University, addressed the crowd at the rally saying “many of us have come here this afternoon with heavy hearts, weary minds and restless souls. The recent tumultuous turn of events in our country, have unearthed the anger, the fear, frustration that we as Black people carry around inside of us every day of our lives.”

“Today we are here together, unapologetically and proud Black Austin,” Pierce Burnette continued. “Gathering symbolically on the east side of Austin.”

She noted that HTU was founded in 1875, ten years after the emancipation of slaves in Texas.

“In the city that was once legally segregated and symbolically divided by I-35, this university is a visual reminder of the tale of two cities,” Pierce Burnette said. “An institution on the east side of the city that for years has been perceived or treated less than, ignored, not invested in, treated like a stepchild.”

Huston-Tillotson asked all those who attended the portion the rally on their campus to wear face coverings and use hand sanitizer to protect against COVID-19. Organizers of the rally had masks, water bottles and snacks to distribute to people who arrive at the HTU campus.

The march proceeded down 7th Street and to the south side of the Texas Capitol. It took more than an hour and a half to get the stream of thousands of demonstrators to the state capitol.

This rally comes exactly one week after Austin Justice Coalition opted to cancel a previously scheduled rally due to protesters “possibly hijacking this event, we could not assure the safety of black folks.”

A flier for the rally Sunday courtesy of the Austin Justice Coalition.

“White people have colonized the black anger and the black movement in this particular time frame and have used black pain and black outrage to just completely become anarchists in this moment,” Moore said last week. “What we’ve seen in Minneapolis and Atlanta is completely different because those have been black-led uprisings.”

“As we are talking about these issues and the need for change, we want to center black history, black culture, black hertigage, black joy and what better place to do that than HT,” Moore said.

“I really think it’s going to be one of the most beautiful things that Austin has ever seen,” he added on Saturday, before the rally had taken place.

East Austin is an area full of rich history for Austin’s African American community, who were forced there by segregationist policies in the city’s 1928 plan. That plan segregated minorities by limiting where they could access public services, literature at Austin’s Mexican American Cultural Center states, pushing the Hispanic community to the area just north of the Colorado River and the African American Community to the area just north of that.

(KXAN/Todd Bailey)

Today, gentrification is pushing many of those families out and East Austin has become a “hot real estate market,” seeing the largest increases in property value in all of Travis County.

Researchers at UT Austin have been documenting and calculating displacement in East Austin and its impacts on the African American community. The researchers believe these neighborhoods are most vulnerable because they had historically lower housing costs as a result of 1928 policies that segregated black and Hispanic Austinites to the eastern part of the city.

Those low housing costs have recently been reversed as east Austin becomes more socially and financially desirable for others with more money, the researchers noted. They added that communities of color are among the most at risk of being displaced.

As with other demonstrations in the past week, Moore says Sunday’s rally will be in part a protest against police brutality.

“Police brutality is nothing new to Austin for the black community and the Latino community,” Moore said. “We’ll be talking about also kind of shifting the narrative and shifting the thought around what policing actually is. How do we build that world infrastructurally to where we don’t really need them?”

Also present at Sunday’s rally was Brenda Ramos, the mother of Mike Ramos who was shot and killed by Austin Police in an incident on April 24. Ramos’ family explained that he is half Black, half Hispanic.

Ramos’ death is still being investigated by Austin Police and the Travis County District Attorney hopes to bring his case before a grand jury this summer, but in the meantime, Ramos’ name has been chanted by protesters in the same sentences as names like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

“What keeps me going every day is my commitment to myself and my son,” Brenda Ramos said. “That no more moms and dads and children go through this torture that I live under while we wait for answers and only hear lies.”

“People I have heard and asked, they want Chief Manley down, they want him fired and off the force, yes!” she said raising her first into the air, echoing calls from several city council members asking Austin Police Chief Brian Manley to step down.

Ramos’ mother also spoke about how the Austin Police officer who fired his patrol rifle at her son had also been involved in an officer-involved shooting that resulted in a man’s death in August of 2019.

Mayor Steve Adler attends the rally (KXAN/Todd Bailey)

In addition to policing, the organizers of Sunday’s event wanted the rally to focus on something they referred to as “economic brutality” Black Austinites have experienced.

“We have to talk about the economic disadvantages that African Americans face in this society when it comes to food deserts, housing, lack of access to healthcare,” Chas Moore said. “It’s so much bigger than police brutality, it’s about the systemic and structural racism that black people face in the city.”

(KXAN/Todd Bailey)

“How do we actually start living up to this ‘more perfect union’ that we’ve talked about in the Constitution?” Moore asked.

With significant decisions coming up for city leaders as it relates to policing and the budget, Moore is hopeful the rally Sunday will cement some of the decisions public officials will be making.

At the rally, Moore called upon the thousands of people seated in the Austin heat, “your hash tags are wonderful, your yard sides are beautiful, but what are you willing to relinquish to tilt the scales of justice and economic opportunity?”

KXAN journalists Alex Hoder and Todd Bailey contributed to this report.

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