In George Floyd-inspired protests, Texas organizers find new allies in quest for police reforms

Guests gather at North Central University Thursday, June 4, 2020, before a memorial service for George Floyd in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

By Alexa Ura and Stacy Fernández
June 10, 2020

                Editor's note: This story contains explicit language. 

As the mourning of George Floyd’s death spilled over from the first weekend of protests and passed the seven-day mark, Durrel Douglas opted to stay off the streets.

The Houston organizer had been one of those holding the megaphone six years earlier when outrage over the police killing of another black man, Michael Brown, reached his city. This time, he turned his attention to researching what other cities have done to address racism in policing, looking for ways to leverage the energy of the protests into change for Houston.

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“There are people who are part of this movement now who haven’t been to City Hall,” said Douglas, a co-founder of the Houston Justice Coalition. “They’re about to do just that because, finally, there’s something that has brought them to do that.”

Floyd’s death has emerged as a potentially pivotal moment in an enduring movement for racial justice that has been marked by a pattern of steady activism, punctuated by eruptions of protests when working within the system proved ineffectual.

Long before millions around the world watched the minutes leading up to Floyd’s death on their screens, reaction to tragedy at the hands of police had taken on a familiar frustrating pattern for organizers like Douglas — protests and collective calls for change that waned into occasional incremental reforms.

But in the persistence of the demonstrations in Floyd’s name — sustained by newcomers joining those who have long been leading the fight — Texas organizers and activists sense a wider opening to convince more of those in power that the too often deadly interactions between black people and police are more than anecdotal. It’s impossible to forecast how much change will come of the reckoning spurred by Floyd’s death, but organizers are pinning their hopes for reform on transforming the scale and momentum of the protests into local accountability.

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Success will come by enlisting those uplifting Floyd’s name in the streets into the ranks of people willing to put pressure on those who can make justice possible, said Ashton Woods, founder of Black Lives Matter Houston.

In the days since the Memorial Day recordings showed how a white Minneapolis police officer pinned Floyd down with a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes, the civic unrest has reached what Woods describes as “critical mass.”

“No one can look away now, and that’s what this is,” Woods said. “It shouldn’t have been anybody dying for this to happen.”

In Texas, protests are reviving attention to the state’s own history of killings by police. In recent interviews, Gov. Greg Abbott has repeatedly said the brutality inflicted on Floyd “should never happen here in the state of Texas.” But it has.

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In April, Michael Ramos was shot by an officer with a bean bag round as he stood next to his car, hands in the air shouting that he was unarmed, the Austin Chronicle reported. Ramos ducked into the car and started to drive away when he was shot to death by an officer with a rifle. Last year, Atatiana Jefferson was shot by a white police officer through a bedroom window in her Fort Worth home. The man didn’t identify himself as a police officer before yelling at her twice to put her hands up and then shooting, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported. In 2018, a white Dallas police officer shot Botham Jean, who was sitting on his couch eating a bowl of ice cream. The officer said she mistook Jean’s apartment for her own and thought he was a burglar. During her trial, she admitted she intended to kill Jean when she shot, The Dallas Morning News reported.

In the aftermath of Floyd’s death, the Austin American-Statesman reported the death of Javier Ambler, who was chased by police last year for failing to dim the headlights of his vehicle and then held down and stunned with a Taser four times. He repeatedly pleaded for help and indicated he couldn’t breathe.

The harrowing circumstances of those recent shootings — and their frequency — have helped galvanize wider support for their movement, organizers say.

“I think this is the last straw for everybody that said [previous shootings in North Texas] were one-offs,” said Indianna Taylor, an organizing co-chair for the Dallas chapter of Black Youth Project 100. “It took ‘good examples.’”

In the recent protests, organizers across the state said they’ve sensed a growth in support — and the power that comes with it — among white people and non-black people of color. That’s been reflected in the way calls to action continue to extend into communities that aren’t typically hotbeds for demonstrations.

In the last two weeks, protests have spread from the state’s largest cities into suburban cities, rural Texas communities and even to Texas’ most notorious sundown town.

“It feels like a shift,” local organizer Tina Butler said of the recent energy in the mostly Latino and white city of Corpus Christi.

In her 57 years of living there and decades of community organizing, Butler said she’s never seen as much interest from government officials or seen black organizations as unified. About 1,000 people showed up last weekend for a protest in Corpus organized by the Texas Association of Black Personnel in Higher Education, which Butler heads, and other black leadership groups.

Butler hopes city leaders will listen to input from black residents instead of doubling down on the “nothing like this happens in Corpus” narrative. For months, her son-in-law got pulled over by police multiple times a week driving through the same 45-minute stretch of road. He’d be pulled over and asked to step out of his truck for small traffic infractions, Butler said.

“It wasn’t videoed, it didn’t go out there and go viral, but it happened,” Butler said.

In Austin, Chas Moore has found himself navigating what it took for non-black people to push for change and the work it takes to center the lives of black people when the movement expands as a result.

“They have to watch Ahmaud Arbery get gunned down in the street like a dog to give a damn. They had to watch this man literally gasp for air for fucking eight minutes to give a damn,” said Moore, the executive director of the Austin Justice Coalition. “It wasn’t like this afterthought or this off-screen thing where you see a cop shoot but you don’t see the pain. They saw it. It was real, and I think that’s why we are where we are.”

Austin has illustrated how an increase in support can come with complications. The Austin Justice Coalition rescheduled a protest last minute after seeing how previous demonstrations were co-opted by mostly white and non-black people of color who wanted to create chaos for the sake of it, Moore said. The police threw tear gas and bean bag rounds into crowds of protesters, critically injuring at least one man.

The protest was rescheduled for Sunday, with thousands of people marching from Huston-Tillotson University to the Texas Capitol in the biggest — and arguably the blackest — demonstration the city has seen since Floyd’s death.

The collective calls to action have already begun to usher in change — or at least flickers of the possibility of reform.

In Congress, lawmakers have introduced legislation to end qualified immunity for police and a sweeping reform bill to ban the use of chokeholds and set up a national database for police misconduct, among several other proposals. At the state level, Texas is set to add implicit bias training to its requirements for police officers.

Locally, police departments are moving to formalize banning chokeholds and require officers to intervene when a fellow officer is using excessive force. Now facing public pressure for their use of force during the protests, some police departments are also reviewing policies that dictate their interactions with crowds.

In Houston, where the City Council is considering its next budget, one council member has proposed rerouting millions of dollars allocated to the police department toward deescalation training, independent investigations of misconduct by an oversight board, a clearinghouse for complaints against police and other initiatives that align with demands put forth by protesters. At Floyd’s funeral service Tuesday, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner indicated he would sign an executive order formally banning the use of chokeholds.

For organizers like Woods and Douglas, the budget votes and an upcoming meeting of the council’s public safety committee present opportunities to flex their movement’s new political capital as they turn protesters into activists. Woods said he’s deploying them to flood the phone lines of City Council members. Douglas is also looking for ways to build on local policies, including rules governing when police must turn on body cameras and the release of that footage.

“All the bets have been raised. Almost all the jackpots seem to be more within reach,” said Douglas. “It is a unique dance because while we want this accountability, we also have to understand that a man’s life ended and there’s a family out there that’s grieving. They all can get mixed in this conversation, and it’s not just this one.”

Alana Rocha contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Huston-Tillotson University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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