The Los Angeles FC’s fancy new Banc of California Stadium just opened this spring on government-owned land. And it’s going to pay property taxes.
“There was never any issue about property taxes being charged or not,” Seth Burton, LAFC’s vice president of communications, told me late Wednesday via email, responding to questions I’d sent earlier. “The stadium is a private development and did not request or need property tax defrayed.”
The Los Angeles FC stadium seats about 22,000, a shave above the 20,000-seater that Precourt Sports Ventures proposes to build in Austin. It’s worth noting the LAFC stadium has other bells and whistles that brought construction costs to $350 million, well beyond Precourt’s $200 million stadium budget in Austin (I don’t have the details on the Carson, Calif. stadium that’s home to LA’s other team, the LA Galaxy). LAFC fully financed its stadium construction, just as Precourt proposes to do.
Both stadiums also involve government-owned land. Burton told me the LAFC stadium sits on state-owned land that is being subleased from the University of Southern California. Precourt wants to build its stadium on the 24-acre McKalla Place tract owned by the city of Austin, which the franchise seeks to lease for $1 a year.
But here’s a key distinction: When the construction dust cleared, LAFC retained ownership of the soccer stadium it built and plans to pay property taxes on it. The first bill hasn’t come due yet, so Burton couldn’t provide a dollar amount. “The process to determine the amount of taxes is ongoing,” he said, which is not surprising, considering the challenges involved in appraising a sports venue for tax purposes.
In Austin, Precourt has proposed giving the stadium it builds to the city. This city-owned facility would remain off the tax rolls, much like the city-owned stadiums used by FC Dallas (technically based in Frisco) and the Houston Dynamo.
The property tax question is just one piece of the puzzle for Austin officials to figure out if they proceed today with Precourt. It’s possible some other combination of benefits makes better sense than putting the stadium on the tax rolls. But it’s instructive to know there’s a place where an MLS team pays property taxes without flinching.
Financially speaking, it’s the biggest unknown in the proposal for a Major League Soccer stadium site at McKalla Place: How much property tax revenue would the city forfeit if the stadium was kept off the tax rolls?
Michael J. Gaudini, a policy advisor with Council Member Leslie Pool’s office, fired up Excel and calculated some reasonable estimates that provide some scale to the debate, with some caveats I’ll explain in a minute.
We know a private appraisal in 2016 valued the land at $29.5 million, and we know Precourt Sports Ventures plans to spend $200 million building the proposed 20,000 seat stadium if the Columbus Crew SC moves here. Using those values, Gaudini estimates such a stadium would pay roughly $5 million in property taxes its first year, if the stadium and the land were both fully taxed.
That bill would include $2.7 million for Austin schools, $1 million for the city of Austin, nearly $850,000 for Travis County, almost $250,000 for Central Health and about $230,000 for Austin Community College. (Gaudini’s spreadsheet has exact dollar figures, but I’m rounding here for ease of discussion.)
Of course that’s just Year 1. Gaudini forecast three scenarios stretching into the next 25 years, rightly recognizing that forecasts become less reliable the further you reach into the future.
Under his first scenario, assuming a 4 percent growth in property taxes each year, the total lost tax revenue over 25 years would be $211 million, including $114 million to Austin schools, $42.5 million to the city of Austin, $35 million to Travis County, $10 million to Central Health and $9.6 million to ACC.
Under his second scenario, assuming a 6 percent growth in property taxes each year, the total lost tax revenue over 25 years would be $278 million, including $150 million to Austin schools, $56 million to the city of Austin, $46 million to Travis County, $13.5 million to Central Health and $12.7 million to ACC.
Under his third scenario, assuming an 8 percent growth in property taxes each year, the total lost tax revenue over 25 years would be $371 million, including $200 million to Austin schools, $74.6 million to the city of Austin, $62 million to Travis County, $18 million to Central Health and $17 million to ACC.
The 6 percent or 8 percent scenarios are the likelier ones, if recent history is any guide.
These forecasts are built on assumptions, including the idea that tax revenues will continue on a steady upward march for the next quarter century, between fluctuations in the tax rate and growth in property values.
I asked Gaudini about this, and he acknowledged the Travis Central Appraisal District might look at other indicators to set the value, as the agency did for COTA (the appraisal district, understandably, didn’t want to speculate with me about a proposed stadium’s tax bill). But he found several indications, including this presentation by the Tampa-area tax appraisal office, that construction cost is a fair value to use.
All of this is an academic exercise: Precourt wants a property-tax free deal. That’s not uncommon: FC Dallas and the Houston Dynamo play their MLS games at city-owned stadiums that don’t pay property taxes. With a few exceptions, property tax-free stadiums are baked into the financing for pro sports franchise deals.
Also missing is any sort of comparison to the taxes that other developments might pay if McKalla Place was used for housing or mixed- use projects. Council Member Jimmy Flannigan asked city staff for that very thing at Tuesday’s work session with the hope of better understanding the opportunity costs. The council is set to consider two resolutions Thursday: One launches the city’s negotiations with Precourt for a soccer stadium deal, while the other allows other developers to pitch plans for the site.
Nonprofit-owned affordable housing on city-owned land wouldn’t pay property taxes, though it would help address a critical city need. (Precourt recognizes that and has added an affordable housing component to its stadium plan). However, if a for-profit developer built a mix of apartments, shops and offices at McKalla Place, it likely would pay property taxes.
These comparisons are beside the point for Mayor Steve Adler, however. He said there’s no doubt a mixed-use development on McKalla Place would bring more property tax revenue. But the soccer stadium, he said, would serve a larger community purpose.
“We did the (downtown) library on an incredibly valuable tract,” Adler noted. “I don’t remember an analysis being done about what we would be able to do if we put that to a mixed use development, which would have been an extraordinary value. We didn’t do that because a library was a really important thing for us to have, and now there are thousands of people a day going to the library.”
Of course there’s a difference between a city-owned library and virtually free use of city-owned land by a for-profit venture like Precourt.
But a soccer franchise would bring other community benefits. Weighing them all will be the City Council’s challenge on Thursday.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Speaking Spanish – something 40 million Americans do – is all over the news.
When a Manhattan man went on a racially charged rant last week after hearing restaurant employees speaking Spanish, he said repeatedly, “It’s America.”
You get the message — ‘This is America, we speak English here.’
He’s right, of course, we do speak English in America, but that’s not all — we also speak over 350 different languages at home, according to a census report. Indeed, more than 1 in 5 Americans over the age of 5 speak a language other than English at home, the 2015 report found.
We are a nation of immigrants, after all.
True, most Americans speak only English at home or a few other languages like Spanish or Chinese or Vietnamese. Still, the data reveals the breathtaking range of language diversity in the U.S., the census said.
Take New York City, where the xenophobic meltdown occurred and where more than 1 in 3 metro area residents speak a language other than English. More than 200 languages are spoken by the 8.6 million people who live there, Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted.
“They’re all New Yorkers and they’re all welcome here,” he said.
As the nation goes, so goes Austin, where se habla Español. About 358,000 people age 5 and over – out of a total metro area population of 1.65 million — speak Spanish at home. In all, slightly more than 27 percent of Austin metro area residents spoke a language other than English. After Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese topped the list of other languages spoken here.
Spanish was tops as well among the other 350 languages spoken in the U.S., according to the census, which gleaned data collected from 2009 to 2013.
Other top languages spoken, in order of ranking, were:
French (including Patois and Cajun)
Spanish vaulted into the national consciousness again the other day when a U.S. Border Patrol agent detained two women, both U.S. citizens, in Montana simply for speaking Spanish. Caught on video, the incident went viral on social media.
“Speaking Spanish is very unheard of up here,” the agent told the women, attempting to explain why he stopped them but neglecting to state the obvious – speaking Spanish is not a crime.
He’s right that in Montana seldom is heard a Spanish word. In the entire state – its 1.05 million population is hardly bigger than the city of Austin’s — only about 1.5 percent of residents speak Spanish.
The irony? Montana is literally Spanish, coming from the word montaña, which means mountain.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.