America the beautiful, now America the ugly under Trump

 

MCALLEN, TX – JUNE 12: U.S. Border Patrol agents ask a group of Central American asylum seekers to remove hair bands and weddding rings before taking them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The immigrant families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

 

So, this is our America.

We’re now a country that gives cover and comfort to white supremacists who publicly slur Jews, African Americans and Latinos.

We’re a nation that defends extremes in gun regulation, even as our children and families are gunned down in our classrooms and churches by persons armed with weapons of war.

We’re a government that paints Muslims with a broad – and ugly – brush.

We’re a sovereign power that wants immigrant kids who grew up in our neighborhoods, have made us proud with academic accomplishments or service in our armed forces, to be exiled to the shadows of our cities or other countries because they lack legal papers or citizenship.

And we’re a country that rips migrant children from the protective, loving arms of their parents.

This is what America has become under the leadership of President Donald Trump. And it’s an America that we the people have endorsed with our votes, legal and justice systems, apathy and void of moral clarity.

Trump might have conceived it, but we now must own it.

That hard dose of reality reverberates in the voices of crying children seized at the Mexico-United States border.

Between May 5 and June 9, more than 2,300 children were separated from parents or adults with whom they were traveling, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Family separations are the result of Trump’s new zero tolerance policy, which refers all border crossings for federal prosecution, even though many migrants crossing the border illegally, mostly from Central America, are seeking asylum.

Up to this week, the public had a limited view of the impact of forced separations on the children. That changed when the nonprofit journalism organization ProPublica published what it said was a recording made inside one of the U.S. government facilities where children taken from their parents are housed.

We heard the raw, unfiltered cries of children calling out in Spanish for “Daddy!” and “Mommy!” We heard children sobbing deeply. We heard a girl repeatedly pleading with adults to call her aunt, whose phone number she had memorized.

RELATED: Hear children recently separated from their parents

“My mommy says I’ll go with my aunt and that she’ll come to pick me up there as quickly as possible.”

ProPublica identified her as a six-year-old from El Salvador.

That was gut wrenching. But then we learned of the “tender-age” facilities across Texas set up by the federal government to house infants, toddlers and young kids.

In simple but powerful words, radio commentator Dave Ross for Seattle’s KIRO-FM brought into focus how far we’ve strayed from President Ronald Reagan’s America as a “shining city on a hill.” How far removed we are from the hope the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed in speeches that cited the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan.

Ross said: “Those are American border agents, trained in America, paid by American taxpayers, following orders from an administration that ran on this policy and was elected by Americans!

“This is who we are now!

“I’m sure we very much would like to be a ‘beacon of hope to the world,’ but that brought too many strangers banging on the door. And so it appears we will snuff out that light and change the locks, at least for now.”

Though Trump officials strongly defended the policy and – unbelievably — justified it with Scripture, officials now appear to be moving away from family separations, no doubt because of rising public pressure, including from the president’s own Republican Party leaders, such as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

On Wednesday, Trump said he would sign an executive order that would end the process of separating children from families after they are detained crossing the border illegally, the Associated Press reported.

“We want to keep families together. It’s very important,” Trump told reporters during a White House meeting with members of Congress.

READ ALSO: In reversal, Trump signs order stopping family separations.

It seems the cries of children melted America’s indifference – at least for the moment.

The issue is not fully settled. Family units will be kept together, but in detention facilities. Also, there remains a serious question about whether migrants fleeing violence and political persecution in their countries will be fairly handled by our courts regarding asylum claims. Instead, we might see them, and their children, swiftly deported by Trump policies that make it tougher to win asylum.

The U.S. should have secure borders. But Trump’s (and now our) America is an eternity away from an Ellis Island that once welcomed poor immigrants from across the globe.

Some no doubt will say that America never was perfect. That is true. But the nation was continually struggling to perfect its imperfections and address past wrongs. It had thought-leaders in Susan B. Anthony, who led the movement to win the vote for women; and Eleanor Roosevelt who tackled racism by flying with black pilots at Tuskegee Institute during WWII, when the military was segregated; her husband, FDR, took on the Nazis in Germany; Thurgood Marshall, was a fearless champion for racial and social justice. There were so many Americans who stood tall for our values.

That is the truly scary thing about today’s America in which hope is being strangled by fear, bigotry, intolerance and apathy. We are becoming desensitized to the pain and suffering of neighbors and strangers alike.

Our hope – and future – relies on rebuilding America humanely and sanely. If we do that, we rebuild ourselves.

Behind the Latino appreciation for Anthony Bourdain

Notes, photographs and flowers are left in memory of Anthony Bourdain at the closed location of Brasserie Les Halles, where Bourdain used to work as the executive chef, Friday in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Among the many tributes and condolences pouring in for Anthony Bourdain, Scott Kelly’s surely came from the rarefied heights. The retired astronaut tweeted that he watched the master storyteller’s shows from space because they pulled him closer to humanity.

“It made me feel more connected to the planet, its people and cultures and made my time there more palatable,” he said.

From his heavenly vantage point in space, Kelly said, Bourdain inspired him “to see the world up close.”

When we struggled to make sense of a world where difference is not tolerated but vilified, Bourdain, a hero of curiosity, someone said, taught us that the unknown was something to embrace and enjoy. Adventure was his muse. Sharing a meal and a drink was a means to connect and to discover we have more in common than we might think.

His travels around the globe, he said, had enriched him by showing him how other people live. “How hard their lives are, how big the world is,” he told CBS in a recent interview.

Bourdain was a champion of the marginalized. If you’re Mexican-American or Mexican or Latino – or even if you’re not – you have seen and heard accolades for his eloquent and irreverent public defense of Mexican immigrants and his appreciation for Mexican culture that reached broadly beyond just its cuisine.

In a famous 2014 essay that’s been shared widely in Latino circles, he wrote:

“As any chef will tell you, our entire service economy — the restaurant business as we know it — in most American cities, would collapse overnight without Mexican workers. Some, of course, like to claim that Mexicans are ‘stealing American jobs.’ But in two decades as a chef and employer, I never had one American kid walk in my door and apply for a dishwashing job, a porter’s position — or even a job as prep cook. Mexicans do much of the work in this country that Americans, provably, simply won’t do.”

Bourdain said he was grateful for the skilled Mexican cooks and kitchen workers who toiled in obscurity but were generous just the same, showing the new, celebrated chef the ropes, imparting the knowledge they had worked long and hard to acquire.

“In nearly 30 years of cooking professionally, just about every time I walked into a new kitchen, it was a Mexican guy who looked after me, had my back, showed me what was what, was there — and on the case — when the cooks more like me, with backgrounds like mine — ran away to go skiing or surfing — or simply ‘flaked.’”

The Mexican workers Bourdain stood up for get a raw deal. Working diligently in back kitchens and behind the scenes, but unappreciated, they are unwittingly yanked into the spotlight when their people are vilified as “criminals” and “rapists” overrunning our border, flooding our cities with drugs, taking jobs from Americans. In that narrative, they become something less than the rest of us.

Oh, and about those drugs, Bourdain wrote: “We love Mexican drugs. Maybe not you personally, but ‘we’ as a nation, certainly consume titanic amounts of them — and go to extraordinary lengths and expense to acquire them … In the service of our appetites, we spend billions and billions of dollars each year on Mexican drugs — while at the same time spending billions and billions more trying to prevent those drugs from reaching us.”

In daring to call out American hypocrisy over illegal immigration, Bourdain spoke bravely and with unflinching honesty, as much or more than any other American celebrity. The double standard is that this is a country that puts out the hiring sign to employ millions of unauthorized workers, yet spends billions to keep them out. To call that out is to risk self-inflicted wounds from the likes of those who cry, “What part of illegal don’t you understand?” Bourdain surely knew the risk — and was a willful defender of the immigrant workers he came to know.

Yes, that is why after learning of Bourdain’s death, some Latinos gravitated to social media to express their admiration for Bourdain, who dared to confront stereotypes and rhetorical talking points to present human beings and immigrant workers in a different light — with dignity.

 

CM Houston: Tired of being invisible

District 1 Austin City Council Member Ora Houston questions reason she was left out of key meeting regarding the Lions Municipal Golf Course.
Shelby Tauber / AMERICAN STATESMAN

 

This is one of those moments in which City Council Member Ora Houston, the lone African American on the Austin City Council, questions whether she is invisible.

Not in the superhero way, but in the manner that some social scientists say disproportionately affects black women.

“It is unfortunate that in 2018 we still operate by the same good old boy rules, practices and procedures of the past,” Houston told me. “What happens in those situations is that there are voices that are not being represented in the room.”

A case in point is the way Houston was cut out of high-level talks regarding the University of Texas’ Lions Municipal Golf Course – even though swaths of UT are in her District 1; even though she initiated meetings last year with UT President Gregory L. Fenves to discuss options for saving Muny and dealing with the expiring lease agreement between the city and UT; and even though she kept Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Alison Alter in the loop of information regarding those meetings.

Yet, when Democratic Sen. Kirk Watson called the meeting a couple of weeks ago regarding Muny, Houston was not among those invited to the table. Those who were invited and attended were: Adler, Alter, Fenves, state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, and Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk.

READ: Why it’s exhausting being black in Austin

Watson says he chose the group based on their ties to Muny and ability to jump-start stalled negotiations regarding the popular golf course. Alter’s District 10 includes Muny as does Howard’s legislative district.

“I convened the meeting because I’ve become frustrated with both parties (UT-Austin and the city) and how they are approaching the matter,” he told me. “The purpose of my meeting was to light a fire.”

“I invited the mayor, city manager and council member who represents the neighborhood where the golf course is located. I’m pleased other council members are interested in this and I would encourage as that fire continues to burn, those council members need to make their interests known to the city and go for it. That is what is going to be necessary.”

Watson noted the clock is ticking on Muny’s future as an 18-hole, city-operated golf course. Under the contract, the city leases 141 acres (that include the golf course) along Lake Austin Boulevard from UT-Austin for more than $400,000 annually — a fraction of what the property would fetch on the market. That was estimated at nearly $6 million annually several years ago if leased for mixed development.

As far back as 2011, the city has known that UT’s desire was to permit the lease to expire next year as UT officials sought to monetize the entire 345-acre Brackenridge tract – which includes Muny — to generate more money for academic programs.

UT’s long-standing plans to turn the property into a mixed-use development were made more difficult, but still possible, when in 2016, the National Park Service – prompted by a group of golfers, environmentalists, Austin residents and black leaders — added Muny to the National Register of Historic Places.

Muny is recognized as one of the earliest municipal golf courses in the former Confederate states to be desegregated. Since that time, Watson said, negotiations between the city and UT have nearly stalled.

RELATED: Muny added to National Register of Historic Places

Houston isn’t buying explanations that the snub was an oversight. She made that clear in an email to Cronk this week. After first thanking Cronk for sharing information with the whole council about the meeting Watson called, she went on to say:

“It is, however, unfortunate that I was not included in that meeting. Not that I would have anything additional to offer. I have been meeting with the President and the Agent since last year regarding these very issues and the University is in District #1. My most recent face to face with President Fenves was May 11th to discuss an option that I suggested. How embarrassed I am to be discussing some of the same issues and be unaware of the meeting. So much for my credibility with the President.”

It was not the first time Houston has been overlooked on matters that directly affect her district. She elbowed her way into talks regarding how the public would be informed about the planned Capitol Complex construction, which would impact traffic on roads in her district.

She notes that Adler’s longer-term plan to generate money for Austin residents experiencing homelessness by leveraging taxes aimed at tourists who stay in local hotels was taken seriously, but not so with her proposal to temporarily house homeless residents in state facilities with empty beds.

Some no doubt will say the snub Houston sees in such matters is all in her head. It’s not.

READ ALSO: Are black women invisible study

The experience of going unnoticed and unheard is not unique to Houston, but a common occurrence for many black women, University of Texas professor and cultural critic Lisa B. Thompson says.

Black women, she said, are either hyper-visible, such as Oprah or Beyoncé, or they go unnoticed in matters of health and wellness, such as the lack of focus on the needs of black women in improving their outcomes in heart disease and maternal mortality rates.

For professionals, it can play out like this, Thompson said: “You (a black woman) are in a meeting and offer an idea. There’s no response. Two minutes later someone else (a white person) will say something similar and it’s a great idea.”

Yes, I know.

Poll shows how we’re split over CodeNext and what issue can bring us together

What do you think of CodeNext? It may depend, as much as anything, on how long you’ve been in Austin.

While the legal wrangling plays out at City Hall over whether to put a CodeNext-related item on the November ballot — a subplot with legal questions almost as complex as the rewrite of the land development code itself — I went searching for indicators of what the public actually thinks of CodeNext.

True, more than 32,000 people signed petitions supporting a ballot initiative that would allow voters to decide the fate of CodeNext and similar zoning overhauls, an indication many are concerned about the issue. But as Uber and Lyft can tell you, gathering enough signatures to put something on the ballot doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have enough votes to prevail on election day.

The most revealing glimpse I found on CodeNext attitudes comes from a poll commissioned by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. This scientific survey of 501 Austin residents found 45 percent favored CodeNext and 36 percent opposed it. With 19 percent unsure, a decision could swing either way.

EDITORIAL: With no good options, City Council faces dilemma over CodeNext

Most notably, the poll shows a stark difference in support for CodeNext based on how long people have lived in Austin. Support for CodeNext is 63 percent among those here less than a decade, and just 27 percent among those here more than 35 years. The opposition counts just 23 percent of the less-than-10-years crowd — and more than half of the folks here longer than 35 years.

Now, you may quibble with the pollster’s wording of the question, which described CodeNext as an effort “to rewrite the land development code and rezone certain areas of the city … in order to create more diverse housing options and increase density” in Austin or select neighborhoods. The question waves at the expected positives without acknowledging critics’ concerns about the potential displacement of longtime residents and the disruption to established neighborhoods.

And the poll, conducted in December by Baselice & Associates with a 4.4 percent margin of error, is no doubt a few months removed from the pulse of Austinites now. Even so, the results provide a helpful map to the fault lines in the CodeNext debate.

The poll showed Democrats supported CodeNext 2-to-1, while only a third of Republicans did. Predictably, support was stronger among the folks who said they believed in planning for future growth, and tepid among those who would prefer no growth at all.

The length of time people have been in Austin struck me as the most useful prism for understanding the debate, though there are exceptions to the trends. I’ve talked to some decades-long residents who champion CodeNext, and you can count me among the newcomers (I moved here five years ago) who aren’t yet sold on the plan. Still, in broad strokes, it helps to understand people on the other side of the divide.

RELATED: CodeNext foes are done with compromise. They’re going for the kill.

Most of us recognize Austin is a vibrant city that will continue to draw newcomers (there’s no hope, as the joke goes, of building a wall around Austin — and making California pay for it). It’s not a question of whether Austin will change, but in what ways, and to whose benefit?

I don’t think most longtime residents want a city frozen in amber, but they do want the neighborhood they’ve invested in to retain its feeling of home. I don’t most think newcomers want to knock everything down, but as we’re searching for housing, it’s clear to us that much, much more of it is needed.

And here’s where the poll provides some common ground: 85 percent of those surveyed agree that “Austin has an affordability problem.” (I’d love to meet the 15 percent who aren’t feeling the squeeze.) Devise a CodeNext draft that can address that overarching problem, providing more of the affordable units new residents need without physically or financially pushing out longtime residents, and the city of Austin might get more of us on the same page.

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Jade Helm takeover was #FakeNews but plans for this counterattack were real

With everything we’ve learned about the ability of Russian bots to grossly amplify the reach of #FakeNews, we shouldn’t be all that surprised by this week’s revelation that the 2015 Jade Helm conspiracy theory was an early triumph of this toxic technology.

But before we make our jokes about tin foil hats and move on, we should recognize how such cyber chicanery can have a very real impact.

This part barely made headlines here, likely because it involved wingnuts in North Carolina. But in August 2015, the feds arrested three men who were building bombs, stockpiling guns and preparing to attack our government because of Jade Helm.

Back then, we were all busy rolling our eyes at Gov. Greg Abbott tasking the Texas State Guard with monitoring the U.S. military training exercises happening that summer in Bastrop County, while similar special ops training was held in several other states. But the notion of a martial law takeover by the U.S. military was not an obvious hoax to Walter Eugene Litteral, Christopher James Barker and Christopher Todd Campbell — then 50, 41 and 30, respectively.

HOW WE GOT HERE: A timeline on Jade Helm 15

According to arrest affidavits, these men gathered the materials to make pipe bombs and explosive tennis balls covered in nails. They had dozens of guns, military-issue Kevlar helmets, body armor vests and handheld radios with throat microphones. They planned to ambush U.S. soldiers on a 99-acre camp in Clover, S.C., a town not far from Charlotte, N.C.

“According to (Campbell),” the warrant stated, “he and Litteral intend to booby-trap the camp and draw government’s forces into the camp and kill them.”

Thankfully that showdown never came. The owner of a military surplus store where the men bought their gear learned of their plot and alerted the FBI, according to the Washington Post.

Of course it’s possible Litteral, Barker and Campbell would have planned their attack even without the involvement of Russian bots. After all, the bots simply spread the conspiracy theory that was already out there. It was a real person, right-wing provocateur Alex Jones, who conjured the fever dream in March 2015 that Jade Helm, the multi-state military training exercise planned for that summer, was somehow something sinister.

RELATED: The Americans are coming! Jade Helm and the politics of paranoia

But as the conspiracy theory spread online with lightning speed, with a flurry of comments and shares that suggested legions of alarmed residents, real people took notice. And a handful of elected officials pandered to the paranoia.

U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, issued a statement in May 2015 saying “true patriots” had cause to be “legitimately suspicious.” That same month, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, then making his run for president, demanded answers from the Pentagon because “the federal government has not demonstrated itself to be trustworthy in this administration.”

I know Republicans had major differences with the Obama Administration. But I think we can agree Gohmert and Cruz didn’t exactly nail this one.

ALSO READ: Race, Russian bots and the angst around #AustinBombings

In providing this week’s revelation about the Russian bots, former CIA director Michael Hayden helped us understand how the clearly ludicrous Jade Helm conspiracy theory spread so far and wide, and how the success of this operation paved the way for Russian meddling in the social media chatter around the 2016 presidential campaign. And that’s troubling enough. But let’s not lose sight of the life-or-death stakes in this realm of Internet mischief.

Just over a year after the foiled Jade Helm counterstrike in North Carolina, a gunman walked into a Washington, D.C. pizzeria, convinced it was harboring a child sex ring.

Fake News. Real danger.

Bomber’s confession should be released as transcript

Chas Moore, Austin Justice Coalition; Brian Manley, interim Austin Police Chief; Emlyn Lee founder and chief Collaborator of Brave and Gilbert Rivera speak on a KUT radio panel at Carver Museum in East Austin about the deadly Austin bombings and the response by police, the media and the community. Thursday, March 29, 2018. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

 

Nearly a month after Austin’s serial bomber took his own life by blowing himself up in his vehicle as police closed in, Austin still is in the dark about the words he spoke on a 28-minute recording he left behind.

Revelations about the Pflugerville resident’s reign of terror on Austin won’t come anytime soon because his confession is being kept secret from the public by the Austin Police Department.

That doesn’t bode well for transparency on issues that pit the public’s right to know against law enforcement’s right to withhold information. And it signals a shift in the way things were handled at the police department when Art Acevedo was chief.

On a visit to Houston last week, Acevedo, who now is chief of that city’s 5,200-officer department, told me he would release a transcript of the recording with any sensitive information redacted in an effort “to balance public safety with the public’s right to know.”

That would allow people to make their own judgments about the bomber’s confession without the filter of law enforcement, Acevedo said.

Interim Police Chief Brian Manley has said the 28-minute recording won’t be released because it is part of an ongoing investigation.

“We will revisit the decision on releasing the audio once the case is closed,” Manley told me.

Texas law permits that; I respect that. But at what point does “an ongoing investigation” become an excuse to keep the recording secret?

Manley also has said that releasing it might inspire copycats or glorify a bomber who terrorized and killed without regrets. For proof, he sent me research that backs up that point, including an article that references the “contagion effect.”

As described in a March 8, 2016 Washington Post article, the “contagion effect refers to the tendency of some people to model or copy behavior or activity portrayed by news or entertainment media.”

In other words, fame, or notoriety, is a powerful incentive for would-be mass killers. And some have studied the habits of others in plotting their killing sprees, such as reported by the New York Daily News this month.

According to the article, “Nikolas Cruz studied the Columbine High School massacre ahead of his own deadly rampage in Parkland, Fla. earlier this year.”

On the social media front, ABC news reported on findings by researchers Jennifer Johnston and Andrew Joy in 2016, which examined studies on when gun massacres occur and profiles of the perpetrators. The pair looked at a 2015 study that examined 57 billion tweets. Of those 72 million used the word “shooting” and 2 million the words “mass murder” or “school shooting.”

The news report stated: “One of the most startling of Johnston and Joy’s findings is that the more tweets that occur about a mass shooting, the higher the chance of another gun massacre occurring soon after. If, after a school shooting, at least 10 out of every million tweets mentions the incident, the likelihood that there will be another school shooting increases to 50 percent within eight days after the initial violence and to 100 percent within 35 days afterward, according to the paper.”

Reading the research opened my eyes to some things journalists could do better, such as not publicizing the names of mass shooters or killers and avoid showing pictures and videos of their faces. I get that.

But researchers also noted that beyond taking steps to avoid naming serial or mass criminals or showing their images, journalists should report “every other detail so the public gains a better understanding about these tragedies.”

We can’t do that without the bomber’s confession. Give us a transcript.

Was Jeff Davis Avenue named after a different Jefferson Davis?

Pop quiz: Jeff Davis was ________________________.

(a) A populist governor and U.S. Senator from Arkansas in the early 1900s.

(b) A comedian on the TV show “Whose line is it anyway?”

(c) The first and only president of the Confederacy.

(d) An artist who creates mementos out of old vinyl records.

OK, technically all four of those men were named Jeff Davis. But when you hear the name, which figure comes to mind first?

That will be a central question when the Austin City Council holds a public hearing Thursday over a proposal to rename Jeff Davis Avenue in Brentwood to something, well, less War-Between-the-States sounding.

As part of our community’s reexamination of statues and place names commemorating Confederate leaders, the council is considering proposals to rename Robert E. Lee Road after Azie Taylor Morton, the first African-American to serve as U.S. treasurer, and rename Jeff Davis Avenue to honor William Holland, who served in various elected posts and championed educational opportunities for black students. (Update: The council approved the renaming of both streets Thursday evening.)

RELATED: After Charlottesville, Austin’s Confederate monuments get a second look

Residents along both streets oppose the name changes by a roughly 2-to-1 ratio, at least among the fraction of property owners who sent a written response to the city. For the most part, the opponents point to the cost and hassle of updating their driver’s licenses, checks and mailing addresses with various institutions. Some question more broadly whether history is being painted over in the name of political correctness.

But at least six residents raised a curious argument: Jeff Davis Avenue isn’t named for that Jefferson Davis.

You see, there was a Jeff Davis who served three terms as Arkansas governor before a stint as U.S. Senator.

“Jeff Davis is not the same as Jefferson Davis, the person associated with the Confederacy/Racism,” one resident wrote to the city.

“Two separate old timers in the neighborhood swear this street was named after the Governor of Arkansas from 1901-1907,” another resident wrote to the city. “The next two streets are also named for governors of the same period.”

That last part is true. Next street over is Jim Hogg Avenue, named for the Texas governor from 1891-1895, followed by Joe Sayers Avenue, who occupied the governor’s mansion from 1899-1903.

Why round out the trio with a governor from Arkansas, though?

No one can say for sure. Nothing in the public record indicates where the Jeff Davis name came from, apart from the fact the developer included that street name on the plot for the neighborhood in 1927, Rusty Heckaman, a reference archivist with the Austin History Center, told me. While there’s no definitive proof, Heckaman said he wouldn’t be surprised if the street was named for the Confederate leader, given the resurgence in the 1920s of the “Lost Cause” framing of the Civil War as an honorable battle over states’ rights, not a desperate fight over slavery.

But he can’t say for sure: “I wish we had a smoking gun, but we don’t,” Heckaman said.

RELATED: Austin City Council could rename Robert E. Lee Road, Jeff Davis Avenue

For some in the Brentwood neighborhood, however, the Arkansas governor theory persists. Maybe it’s the truncated name. “I do not recall in my history classes Jefferson Davis ever being referred to as ‘Jeff,’” one resident wrote.

Fair enough. But Texas also has a Jeff Davis County, and historians say that one is named for the Confederate president. And it’s worth noting the younger Jeff Davis, born a year into the Civil War, was himself named after the figurehead of the Confederacy.

But let’s assume for a moment the street in Brentwood is named for Arkansas Gov. Jeff Davis. Why are we honoring him?

In the early 1900s, the Arkansas governor railed against the right of African-Americans to vote and called for the segregation of property taxes so that white people could ensure their tax dollars went to whites-only schools. Davis’ speeches often extolled the virtues of lynching with shameful language I won’t repeat here. Historian Fon Louise Gordon, quoted in Bullets and Fire: Lynching and Authority in Arkansas, 1840-1950, argued the governor was responsible for “the injection of racial hatred, not merely exclusion, into political rhetoric” of the time.

Is this Jeff Davis somehow better than the other Jefferson Davis?

Let me tell you instead about William Holland.

An ex-slave who served in the Union Army, Holland went on to become a Travis County teacher, county commissioner and state representative. As a lawmaker in 1876, he authored legislation establishing Prairie View A&M University to provide educational opportunities for African Americans. In 1887 he lobbied for the creation in Austin of the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Institute for Colored Youth — one of the precursors to the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. He was serving as the institute’s superintendent when he died.

In their own ways, in their own times, Jeff Davis and Will Holland made it clear who they would welcome on their streets. I know who I would welcome on mine.

Why Austin isn’t getting as much affordable housing money as you might think

Facing an urgent need to fund more affordable housing in Austin, the City Council set its sights on some tax dollars it figured no one would miss.

New tax dollars.

Specifically, the shiny new tax revenue that materializes when government-owned land, which doesn’t pay property taxes, becomes private housing, commercial or mixed-use developments that do.

The City Council decided in 2000 that as city lands were sold for development, 40 percent of the city tax revenue from those sites should go into Austin’s housing trust fund.

A different council doubled down in December 2015, saying 100 percent of the city tax revenue on former city lands should go to various housing programs.

By June 2016, the council widened the net to capture all city tax revenue from the redevelopment of all government-owned sites — lands owned by state agencies, Travis County, Capital Metro, Central Health, you name it. All of those city tax dollars, the council decided, should go toward affordable housing.

“We have such a need for affordable housing in this community, and this is a very appropriate remedy,” Council Member Kathie Tovo, who championed that 2016 measure, told me this week. (In fact, she said, her 2016 measure spelled out the full extent of the policy that her council predecessors had intended in 2000.)

I recently wondered how much money these mandates are channeling toward Austin’s housing efforts. I was surprised to learn the answer was: Not all of it.

VIEWPOINTS: More study needed before Austin uses this tool for affordable housing

This year, $3.7 million in city taxes are being paid on redeveloped, ex-government lands assessed at $923.8 million. But only $2 million of that revenue went into the housing fund, city finance staff told me.

Next year, redeveloped, ex-government lands worth $1.1 billion will spin off an estimated $4.6 million in city taxes. How much will go to affordable housing? Who knows.

The City Council makes the real spending decisions each year during budget season. The resolutions that called dibs on these redevelopment dollars reflect a goal, but they’re not legally binding. And when council members are facing the city’s many budget needs, they sometimes decide they can’t put as much money as they’d hoped toward affordable housing.

“A couple of us expressed a strong desire (during last budget season) that we would be able to identify enough additional money” to put the full $3.7 million toward the housing fund, Tovo said. “In the end, we had so many needs.”

I appreciate the council’s efforts to look for affordable housing money under every couch cushion, and I don’t doubt their sincerity in wanting to see all of these new tax dollars put toward the cause. But think for a moment about some of the big-ticket developments in the works on old government lands. Is it realistic for Austin to absorb all of these residents and workers without putting at least some of their property tax revenue toward the city services they will need?

VIEWPOINTS: Are developer incentives for affordable housing working?

It’s tempting to put all of the property tax revenue from those developments toward the affordable housing Austin desperately needs. But the reality is, even if these are new tax dollars, other parts of the city budget may need them. They come from residents and commercial projects that add to the demand for city services.

Tovo remains hopeful the city could somehow set aside all of this tax revenue for the housing fund. I’m less optimistic, but I see the value in these resolutions. They set an ambitious funding goal for the council and ensure an annual reckoning at City Hall over housing needs.

“This resolution forces us to acknowledge each year what the amount (for affordable housing) should be,” Tovo said. “I hope we get to the point where it is all flowing to the affordable housing fund because it is so necessary for our city.”

 

First step in fixing Austin Energy’s customer service: ‘We have to really revisit empathy’

I once covered a Florida sheriff who told voters: “When you call 911, I want good things to happen.”

OK, set aside for a moment the fact that if you’re calling 911, something terrible is happening. His point was that once you’re talking to a dispatcher, you should get a response that inspires confidence and produces results, preferably as quickly as possible.

As taxpayers, that’s what we want from any agency we dial up. But as events over the past few months at Austin Energy illustrate, that’s not always what we get.

American-Statesman reporter Elizabeth Findell recently chronicled the case of a man who received a $12,000 water bill that was clearly in error — and spun his wheels for two months with Austin Energy’s customer service reps until his wife took the issue to an advisory board. That, finally, sparked a serious review of the bill.

Executives with Austin Energy, which handles the billing for all city utilities, acknowledged a string of failures in that case. After initially insisting the man’s vacant lot must have used enough water to supply a typical household for eight years, investigators determined a water main break had caused the meter to malfunction. They fixed the bill and described the case as an anomaly.

While the dollar amount was unusual, though, the customer service response echoed what hundreds of customers heard when their water bills inexplicably spiked last fall or suddenly soared in the summer of 2015: The bill is right because the meter is right. Somehow you used all of that water, so please pay up.

We now know that two ex-meter readers made up the water use numbers for thousands of homes last fall, prompting refunds for more than 7,000 customers. And after Austin Energy couldn’t explain the 2015 spikes to everyone’s satisfaction, the City Council created a one-time bill reduction program for any future bills that might be out of whack.

HOW IT BEGAN: Austin Water fields complaints of big water bills in Circle C

If you’ve ever called Austin Energy about a high water bill, you know that the customer service rep starts with the assumption that the meter is right, and then asks questions suggesting the problem is on your end. Do you have a swimming pool? A leaky toilet? Broken sprinklers, or too-frequent lawn watering?

But in light of last fall’s billing woes, Austin Energy has been revisiting its customer service policies, and I caught up this week with deputy general manager Kerry Overton to find out what that looks like.

For starters, he said, “one of the things we found through this experience, we have to really revisit empathy.” In some cases, he said, call-takers were so focused on solving the problem — going through that checklist of questions on water use — that they weren’t relating to what customers were actually telling them.

“We had to really slow that process down, show that we’re listening to what the customer is saying,” Overton said. Call-takers are in the midst of training to better empathize with customers up-front, understand the emotions involved, then transition to an explanation of next steps. “We need to help (customers) instead of just taking care of the city’s business,” he said.

Austin Energy used to automatically flag some bills for review, including ones where water use had tripled compared to the same month a year ago. In reality, Overton said, some of those cases were still falling through the cracks and not getting reviewed.

Now Austin Energy is casting an even wider net, automatically flagging bills where water use has at least doubled. And a list of all of the flagged cases, including ones arising from customer complaints, is provided to a supervisor each day, so the supervisor can follow up with investigators on the status of each one.

ALSO READ: How to get $85 if you’re an Austin Energy customer

Meter readers are also taking photos of each meter they read, providing extra documentation for investigators to check if a bill looks askew. Austin Energy and Austin Water are also starting random checks of bills each month, providing more layers of quality control.

Those are good efforts, and we should all be rooting for Austin Energy to get things right. But it’s also in the utility’s best interest to provide top-shelf customer service, Rick Parrish, a customer experience analyst with the Forrester consulting firm, told me. He suggested several reasons:

Customers can become allies. Austin’s utilities need residents’ buy-in on all kinds of initiatives, from conserving water and energy use to increasing recycling efforts to meet the city’s ambitious Zero Waste goal (remember, trash service is on your utility bill, too). Treat us fairly, and we’re more receptive when Austin Energy calls for people to join its GreenChoice program, in which customers pay a little more to support renewable energy, or when the Resource Recovery folks show up with those new organic composting bins (which isn’t all that far away).

Customers can become advocates. Austin’s utilities live in a particularly political environment. Any rate changes need the approval of the City Council. And every few years, it seems, some lawmaker floats the idea of deregulating Austin Energy, a move that would undoubtedly hurt the city and its residents. Customers who are happy with their service will be in the utility’s corner when those moments arrive.

Everyone can use an insurance policy. At some point, something will go wrong, Parrish noted. But utilities, and companies generally, can blunt the backlash if they have a good track record with the public.

And think of the time you’ll save. It’s a drain on everyone’s time when customers keep calling back because the issue wasn’t handled right the first time.

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Customer service consultant and Forbes contributor Micah Solomon said great customer service organizations start with the premise that “the answer is yes, now what is the question?” True, Austin Energy can’t automatically forgive every customer’s bill, but it can welcome the request for a review and provide it in good faith.

Not only should such cases be reviewed immediately, Solomon told me, but investigators should not start with the premise that the customer is wrong and the meter is infallible.

“It’s not a legitimate review if it starts with such an assumption,” he said. “And even if the utility is proven, ultimately, to be correct, it’s a bad recipe for feelings all around.”

Billy Harden (1953-2018) opened doors and shaped minds

Teacher Don Webb greets Dr. Billy Harden (center) then-head of Goodwill industries’ charter school, and Traci Berry, senior vice president of community engagement. Goodwill launched a pilot program with funds from the Texas Legislature to help students 19-50 receive their high school diplomas.
RALPH BARRERA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN

 

Billy Harden’s imprint on Austin was indelible.

Not just because he was a towering figure in the African American community. But because Billy (whom I’ve known for over 25 years) was a mover and shaker in Austin’s arts and education community.

Billy died this week of colon cancer. He was 64.

Certainly, Billy was an accomplished educator, actor, musician, producer – and loving son to his mother, Ada, and siblings; Roosevelt Harden Jr., Marilyn Harden and Anita Davis.

His reach was long, from Metropolitan AME Church in Austin where he served over the years as choir and music director, to Hollywood through his life-long friendship with actor Julius Tennon and in recent years, Tennon’s wife and partner, Academy-award winning actor Viola Davis.

Billy, Roosevelt and Tennon attended junior high together and graduated from then-Johnston High School. Last year, Billy, Roosevelt and Austin friends Winston Williams and Roy Henry joined Tennon and Davis in Los Angeles to witness Davis getting her star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

With many accolades in theater, a career in education and demand for his talents, Billy was financially and professionally set. That wasn’t enough. Grabbing the baton from the late Boyd Vance, Billy opened doors for so many African American actors, dancers and singers to a local theater community that wasn’t always welcoming to black performers.

He didn’t throw bombs or call folks out. He worked behind the scenes, building relationships and partnerships that moved African Americans from their near-invisibility in Austin stage performances to pivotal roles.

Aside from knocking down barriers and stereotypes of what a lead in theater performances needed to look like, sound like, or be shaped like, Billy’s efforts went a long way in helping black performers land paying jobs in mainstream performances, so they could carve out a living locally.

“He did that in a quiet, nonconfrontational way,” Roosevelt told me. “He did it relentlessly.”

“My brother had a knack—in a nonintimidating way — of getting people to look at themselves and when they did, they saw gaps in the community that needed to be filled. Billy did everything he could do to fill them.”

In 2013, continuing to build on Vance’s legacy, Billy co-founded Spectrum, Austin’s leading African American theater company, with stage veterans Jacqui Cross, Janis Stinson and Carla Nickerson. Tennon and Davis – members of Spectrum’s advisory board — helped get it off the ground.

As a member of the group’s governing board, I worked with Billy, who was executive director. But my history with him goes back to the days when I was a single mom earning wages as a journalist that qualified my family for food stamps.

As I recalled to Roosevelt, “We were poor. I needed affordable after school childcare,” which I was fortunate to find at an Extend-A-Care program Billy ran in East Austin.

That was the other side of Billy: The caring educator who could with a look both discipline and encourage kids, including my boys. Always emphasizing academic achievement, Billy opened children’s minds to a world of art and music, believing the two – education and the arts – could transport any child to success.

The homework and studying got done under Billy’s watch. Hungry kids were fed. Perhaps the most exciting for the kids was the story-writing and telling Billy did with our children, using several literary genres. But there was something more: Children were shaped, meaning they came out of Billy’s program better than they went in.

With too many accomplishments to list in this space, I will mention just some: He earned a doctorate in educational leadership from Mary Hardin-Baylor University; served as a former head of school at Goodwill Industries’ charter school and assistant principal at the Austin school district’s Alternative Learning Center.

The American-Statesman’s Michael Barnes noted that Billy had attracted notice on the stage by the 1980s, often playing gruff but kindly characters. Among his most memorable performances were in multiple stagings of “I’m Not Rappaport” with fellow actor Tom Parker. Other standouts included roles in “Porgy and Bess,” “Purlie,” “Spunk,” “Our Town,” “The Gospel at Colonus,” “Death of a Salesman,” “Two Trains Running,” “The Exonerated,” “Five Guys Named Moe” and many more.

I was lucky to have seen so many of those shows. I will never forget.

No doubt some of Billy rubbed off on my sons: Billy Brooks is featured in Austin’s long-running stage performance, “Esther’s Follies.” Mehcad Brooks co-stars in the television series “Supergirl.”

I’m glad Billy’s legacy will continue through the Dr. Billy F. Harden Legacy Fund that that aims to inspire and nurture another generation of talent and support today’s local actors who strive to enlighten, entertain and challenge the Austin community through the arts. You can help. Contribute at  https://www.austincreativealliance.org/BillyHarden/#!form/BillyHarden.