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The Texas Tribune Festival: Racism and Government

Miranda Gershoni, Commentary Editor

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The Texas Tribune Festival, held annually by The Texas Tribune at the University of Texas at Austin, brings together some of the U.S. and Texas’ most prominent leaders in politics, public policy, and journalism. Students and educators have the opportunity to meet with and report on these leaders.  

The panels at the festival were categorized into ten main tracks including Diversity and the Law, Energy and the Environment, Health and Human Services, Public and Higher Education, and Transportation and the Economy. The tracks are organized comparatively to shows at ACL; multiple tracks occur at the same time so you’re forced to pick which to attend. And, like ACL, it is painful when two tracks like women’s rights and public education are at the same time, just like Cage the Elephant and Schoolboy Q.

The first day started off at 8:30 am with Race and Law Enforcement. This event featured Chief Art Acevedo of the Austin Police Department, State Representative James White, Policy Director for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition Shakira Pumphrey, State Senator Royce West, and Director of the Center for Effective Justice and Right on Crime at the Texas Public Policy Foundation Marc Levin. This made for an interesting discussion with informed and unique perspectives. Considering the significant role race continues to play in government, it was riveting to sit in a room with politicians and lawmakers, most of whom were people of color.

One of the main issues addressed was the unfortunate reality that many minorities still face: feeling singled out by law enforcement. The speakers discussed the mistrust that many feel towards law enforcement, which further leads to a lack of trust from the public as they see police as less legitimate.

To begin, State Senator Royce West, named one of the 25 most powerful people in Texas politics by Texas Monthly, addressed how the issue of race and law enforcement is deep-rooted and far from contemporary.

“This is not a new problem. It’s an old problem. It has been happening for years. The problem has been an issue of transparency. What you’re seeing is what people have been complaining about for years,” West said. “Without credible witnesses, the say was in favor of the officer.”

Art Acevedo, the first person of Hispanic origin to serve as the Austin Police Department’s chief, also spoke about the transparency that’s so important in government, especially pertaining to issues of civil rights and social justice.

“We need transparency in the grand jury process,” Acevedo said. “[We can not] hide behind closed doors under such important issues such as taking lives.”

As police chief, Acevedo had an interesting perspective on the logistics of law enforcement and outlined the police training that prepare officers for taxing mental situations.

“We do psychological training, to build psych trauma,” Acevedo said. “If we re psych officers every 3-5 years, we’ll save lives, marriages, and careers; we’ll help create healthier mindsets.”

Acevedo admitted that being a police officer is not a job for everyone and emphasized the importance of recognizing that early on.

“If your first reaction when you’re scared is to shoot and kill an unarmed individual, you aren’t fit to be a cop,” Acevedo said. “As long as I’m police chief in Austin, Texas, you are not going to shoot and kill like a rabid dog. I’m not trying to be cold-hearted, but not everybody is meant to be a police officer. [Often], people focus more on keeping their job than doing their job.”

James White, State Representative and Vice Chairman of the House Corrections Committee and member of Emerging Issues in Texas Law Enforcement Committee, also spoke on the importance of appropriate law enforcement training.

“There was a provision [of the training] involving cultural and ethnic sensitivity, but it was taken out because it would imply that our officers weren’t racially aware,” White said. “It is embarrassing that this is what happened.”

A major focus shared by all the speakers was the rising idea that education and early exposure to the legal system is crucial in mending the trust between individuals and law enforcement. Acevedo described how there is a direct correlation between the introduction of law enforcement in schools and dropout rates.

“We cannot criminalize childhood; we cannot criminalize adolescence,” White said. “Cops should only be there to keep people safe. A cop should not be called into a classroom to take away a distressed kid.”

There is an obvious disconnect between law enforcement and many citizens. This is not to condemn the implicit bias and discrimination that many people of color receive from law enforcement as a result of a lack of awareness on what to do when pulled over. The issue isn’t a lack of understanding from citizens on how to treat officers, it’s a lack of awareness on the way our system has institutionalized racism. It’s also true that awareness and education is happening right now, and POC are aware of how to address officers.

What many speakers were suggesting was a more personal line of communication between law enforcement and young people, so that from early on, young minority students and POC are exposed to their rights and the officers who will enforce them, giving them the power to defend their constitutional rights and understand from an early age what to do when confronted by police officers (perhaps to finally quiet the argument that POC are to blame for disrespecting officers). Credible and honest law enforcement will also get the chance to represent what respectful law enforcement look like, so that students will be able to identify prejudiced officers in the future.

A direct line of communication between police and young people, especially POC directly affected by police brutality, will bridge the widening gap many feel is threatening the whole point of law enforcement, keeping people safe.

“Whatever we come up with, we need to make certain we put it in our schools, and in our TEKS,” West said. “[We must address] the school to prison pipeline. I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired and there are a lot of young people who are also tired of being sick and tired.”

Marc Levin, Director of the Center for Effective Justice and Right on Crime at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, discussed an important safety aspect of the possible trust that could be mended with education.

“People aren’t going to report crimes if they don’t trust law enforcement,” Levin said. “I think there’s a huge opportunity to address core public issue of violence and also get rid of this metaphor of the thin blue line.”

According to the Washington Post, in 2015, there were 990 fatal shootings by police, and black men made up 40%. They were 7 times more likely than white men to get shot by police.

“We do have a problem,” White said. “And we’re not going to solve the problem unless we focus on the data. You have to let the data lead you.”

The way these public policy officials handled this important issue was hopeful. There was no aversion, no trying to go around the facts, no victim-blaming. These politicians addressed racism in government with hope for the future, but also with realism and responsibility.

“From my perspective, policing is not broken. But there is a crisis in policing,” Acevedo said. “If you look across the country, there are so many police chiefs that still accept mediocrity. We [cannot] hide behind closed doors under such important issues such as taking lives. We need to be transparent and respectful of one another, and we have to hold ourselves accountable. We need to take a step back. We as community members can create trust.”

While all of the other tracks were interesting and certainly noteworthy, this was definitely the most relevant and pressing. The Texas Tribune did a phenomenal job of moderating thought-provoking and overdue conversations between policy officials and students, parents, everyday people that are affected by the decisions these officials make. It gave me hope when I spoke with State Senator Royce West and State Representative James White about their plans to combat racism and government through education and made me realize just how much power students can have when we speak up.

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The student news site of Stephen F. Austin High School
The Texas Tribune Festival: Racism and Government