“Progressive” Council Members Back Police Power

Austin prides itself on being a progressive city and many elected officials use the term when campaigning. But the word is largely devoid of meaning as most city councilors demonstrate as they oppose police accountability and support extensive surveillance networks in Austin.

by Jake J. & Joshua F.

At Thursday evening’s Austin City Council meeting, council members rejected the Austin Police Oversight Act (APOA), a measure to invest the police oversight board with investigative power and approved the reintroduction of automatic license plate readers (ALPRs).

It comes as no surprise that upper class district members like Alter (West Austin) and Kelly (Northwest) opposed “accountability for officer misconduct and brutality.” However, it is disappointing that self-styled “progressive” council members like Vela, Pool, Adler and others joined forces to oppose holding police accountable.

The only two councilors to support the APOA and oppose the reintroduction of ALPRs were Natasha Harper-Madison and Vanessa Fuentes. Kudos to them for standing up for the people of Austin rather than kissing the ring of the police like their colleagues.

The language of the Austin Police Oversight Act was by no means radical. The “Office of Police Oversight” was to be clearly instructed to look but not touch. The powers would consist of investigating, receiving complaints, advising and reporting. It would not have any disciplinary powers. But even shining the light of day on the police department was too much for these “progressives.”

In theory, in a democratic system, police have the sole legal right to the use of force. For this unusual ability, they are held to a far higher level of accountability. Or at least that is the theory. In practice, most cities allow the police to investigate themselves. The “progressive” leaders of Austin have declared they trust the cops themselves to determine whether their violence is just, despite many, many years of brutality against the working class and people of color in the city.

Community members, many DSA members among them, thronged to City Hall to speak in favor of item APOA and in opposition to ALPR. This latest fight is part of a long-running conflict in Austin over the power of the police which reached fever pitch during the 2020 Black Lives Matter mass protests and the emergence of the demand to divest from the police and reinvest in social services and community care. The Austin Police Association and their close allies in the Travis County GOP were routed at the ballot box in November 2021 when their effort to mandate higher police funding at the expense of other city services was soundly rejected by voters. This latest push by the APA, this time in opposition to even the most barebones accountability measures, was a success chiefly because of the acquiescence of elected Democrats.

This is simply the latest in a long string of instances that illustrate why we cannot rely on Democrat politicians to deliver change. Even under the pressure of considerable public uproar over these two motions, the solid majority of council members held firm and backed police power. Public pressure campaigns on elected officials remain an important tactic that we should keep in our tool belt, but the challenges we face as a city require longer-term organizing solutions.

As long as the majority of Austin City Council is bought and paid for by the Austin Police Association, real estate interests, and tech barons, we cannot count on getting much from them. It is our task for the foreseeable future to build on the power of the Black Lives Matter protests and the Bernie Sanders campaigns and cohere it into lasting political organization. Every one of the council members that voted for unmitigated police power should be held to account and should be targeted in future elections. The election of genuine working-class representatives who are held accountable to the progressive and socialist movement is necessary to creating a truly democratic city.

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