Austin (KXAN) — Austin City Council work sessions are typically informational rather than personal, but Tuesday’s meeting kicked off with a deeply personal call to action from Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison.
The District 1 council member had asked to start the meeting with a response to the demonstration played out in Austin over the weekend in protests of the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Michael Ramos in Austin.
“I would be remiss to not start this meeting by saying this weekend this weekend we saw thousands of Austin take to the streets and what were largely peaceful demonstrations against an absolutely broken system,” she said, proceeding into six minutes of remarks, which at times, got tearful.
“There is a deep, deep and justified rage across this country and here — right here right now — in our fair city,” she said, noting that in addition to concerns over police brutality, more than 100,000 Americans have died related to the novel coronavirus and that unemployment levels are high.
“The deaths of people like George Floyd, Mike Ramos, Breonna Taylor continue to highlight the racism embedded in our criminal justice system,” she said.
Harper-Madison says that the demonstrations that happened over the weekend in Austin were not riots, but a “demand to be heard.”
“Our residents, they want us to hear their pain, they want us to hear their outrage they want this long, overdue change to systems that protect the privileged while traumatizing Black, brown and other marginalized people” the council member continued. “I just wanted to take a moment to make sure to say we cannot continue to stick our fingers in our ears and just wait for the next eruption anger.”
“I want to add my voice to those collective voices of agony calling for, demanding justice and my hope is that my colleagues and I will answer that call,” she said.
Harper-Madison noted that she as well as Council Member Greg Casar, Council Member Jimmy Flannigan and Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza have coordinated a special called virtual meeting Thursday at 3 p.m. to be briefed on “protests in the city, including protocol and practices employed.”
Casar’s office told KXAN that the meeting is designed to be a forum where people who attended the protests (and in particular those who may have been injured there) can share their experiences. Casar’s office also explained that the goal of this hearing is to set the parameters for what the council can practically do to change policing in the future.
Members of the community can sign up to speak at that meeting by going through the directions at this link, the City Clerk’s office just asks that people who wish to speak sign up by typing in “SPEC001” to register through an online form.
“We’re asking for a couple of very specific things this work week that we can build upon,” Harper-Madison said of that special called meeting. “We have got to, we are obligated, we have got to start to root out the racism in our police department and to create a truly just and truly equitable system that ensures that public safety is accessible to all members of our community, the entire community not certain segments of our community.”
She mentioned wanting to talk about police accountability, training for officers, crowd control tactics, how officers are equipped, how departments are staffed and funded, and how to make community policing effective (“you can’t just take the word ‘community’ and put it in front of policing and think we have something,” she said.)
“So I would ask for forgiveness for sounding angry, but I don’t need forgiveness for sounding angry, I am angry,” Harper-Madison said, getting choked up. “And I am hurt and I am sad and you should be too. And if you’re not, then I don’t know what to tell you.”
“It’s about people who look like me,” said Harper Madison, who is Black.
“It’s about people who look like Delia and Greg and Pio,” she said referring to the Hispanic members of the council Greg Casar, Delia Garza, and Pio Renteria. “It’s about poor people, ’cause it turns out not all poor people look like me or me or Delia or Greg and Pio. It’s about people existing in the margins.”
“And we have got to act,” Harper-Madison emphasized.
Harper-Madison’s colleagues responded to her with resounding support, thank ing her for her comments.
“None of us could say it better,” Casar responded to Harper-Madison.
“We all take up this work — every single one of us, as part of the city government, to no tbe defensive, but to hear what is happening. To respond, to open our hearts and to change within each of us our priorities,” Casar said. “Because we work on this all the time here, but it’s so clear that we haven’t done enough.”
Council Member Ann Kitchen responded saying, “I am committing and recommitting and I can’t say it strong enough, we will do better as a council, and we will make sure that what we have talked about in the past will get done.”
“And we will work with our city manager, our police officers, our police chief and we will make change,” Kitchen added.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler commented as well, acknowledging, “I think the buck does stop with us as a council. We are the ones that control the levers that are operative here in our community.”
“The conversations about race are difficult conversations and I suggest that this process begins with people that look like me doing a lot more listening,” said Adler, who is white.
“I really do believe this is an important watershed moment and a huge opportunity for our city,” he said.