'The Hardest Decision': Austin Justice Coalition's Leader On Why He Canceled His Own Rally
Thousands of protesters marched through the streets in and around downtown Austin over the weekend – demanding an end to police violence against black people. The death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was killed by police in Minneapolis, sparked protests here and across the country. But protests in Austin were also demanding justice for Mike Ramos – an unarmed black and Hispanic man killed by an Austin Police officer in April.
The momentum from the rallies around the country was something the Austin Justice Coalition – a local advocacy group – was hoping to capitalize on with its own event Sunday. But due to safety concerns, AJC’s Executive Director Chas Moore canceled the event just hours before it was scheduled to begin.
"It was the hardest decision," Moore said. "I wanted people to know that AJC stands with them ... but there was no way for me to feel comfortable that all things would go as close to accordingly as planned as possible."
KUT’s Nadia Hamdan spoke with Moore about why he made that last-minute decision.
Note: This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.
Moore: Saturday was just full of chaos. And I'm not criticizing anybody that was a part of that. But the fact that there were fires, the fact that agitation was used at the hands of the police with rubber bullets being shot really loosely in the air and at people at random was something that, again, I couldn't rightfully ask people to come out and support me or support AJC and our cause and, again, put them in that way. [Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said officers were shooting bean bag rounds, not rubber bullets.]
Because if one bad apple from the protest group goes out and agitates a police officer, and they respond with violence, which we know that they are highly capable of doing, a stray bullet doesn't have a target. A stray bullet doesn't aim for a target. It just hits what it hits.
Again, it was the hardest decision because I wanted people to know that AJC stands with them, that we stand in solidarity with everybody from Minneapolis to Atlanta to Louisville to L.A. to Houston and Dallas and most importantly, the people here in our community. But again, there was no way for me to feel comfortably that all things could have went as close to accordingly as planned as possible.
KUT: You said white people and other people of color had colonized the black anger and the black movement, when you put out that video canceling the event. What were your concerns?
Moore: So something that happens a lot here in Austin: there are a lot of people that are not of the black community that don't agree with our tactics. They don't agree with AJC's approach to change. I look at Saturday where the people in that crowd were predominately white and predominately other people of color that felt their approach was the right approach. And, again, that's fine. But you can't force me or you can't force other people that don't agree with that approach to take that approach.
KUT: When you say "their approach," are you saying that certain protesters were taking more violent tactics versus more peaceful protests? When you say their approach versus your approach, can you elaborate on that?
Moore: I think some people's approach to the system is to just burn it all down. And I think in this moment, I would also like to clarify that if some black people that agree with the approaches that were taken Saturday, which is, again, perfectly fine because black people are not a monolith. Some black people that want to take the more radical approach, the more extreme approach, which, again, I get; this system is not in any shape or form designed to advance or add to the betterment of black life and black wealth and black health or other people of color or people in the margins. So I get the sentiment behind, you know, “Burn this thing down” and, you know, "We just need something new."
But my approach to burning this down is very political. I think my approach to bring in change is by getting policy and getting legislation that contributes to this perfect union that we all dream about, where black people can go jogging in neighborhoods or where black people are not, you know, tried and prosecuted and sentenced to death in the street by a cop having their knee in somebody's neck for eight minutes.
I do think that we can work within the system strategically and hard enough to completely overturn it. And that's just something I believe. I believe that to my core.
KUT: So these protests across the country were sparked by George Floyd's death in Minnesota. But his story is one of many. Here in Austin, 42-year-old Mike Ramos, an unarmed Hispanic and black man, was shot and killed by police in April. Many protesters are calling for justice for his death and the others. And I'm curious, what does justice look like to you?
Moore: That is our long answer. But I think it's multi-faceted. I think justice, the utmost part is both of these men still being alive, right? I think George Floyd should still be alive. I think Mike Ramos should definitely still be alive. I think Breonna Taylor should still be alive.
I think one aspect of justice as we talk about this particular moment is respecting and seeing black and brown people as humans and just respecting that, and showing us dignity and respect, like our white brothers and sisters are shown.
But since that can't be the case, since these people are no longer with us, I think we have to look at justice being administered fairly in the sense of making sure these officers are fired, making sure these officers are hopefully never allowed to join another police department, making sure that these officers are charged with murder, making sure that outside of that, that we truly bring about deep, systemic, department-wide changes to the police departments.
I just think people are sick and tired of seeing black bodies and brown bodies so easily disposed of on video camera at the hands of police. Police officers act as the judge, jury and executioner. And justice, in that sense, is eliminating that.
KUT: You've said that Austin Police Chief Brian Manley might be a good person, but he's not the person to fix what you call a racist system. What specific changes do you want to see from APD leadership? What could they do right now to respond to protesters?
Moore: Well, I think one: I think the officers that were involved in Mike Ramos's murder, they shouldn't be on the police force. I think these people should be fired. I think that's the most immediate thing. We look at what happened in Minneapolis. These officers were fired mere days after protests and outcries.
Even something simple like getting rid of the policy that allows officers to shoot at moving vehicles. That was something that Chief Acevedo got rid of, and then Chief Manley put back. That policy alone is the main reason Mike Ramos is not with us because those officers are allowed through policy to shoot at moving vehicles. So it's so many little things that the police department here in Austin can do.
KUT: Have you seen any progress under Manley's leadership? Can you point to any initiatives you've seen that you think are promising?
Moore: To answer that question I would say no. In his tenure, we've seen him come out against the community that was fighting for progressive, better things.
I think if there's been any, it's been very minimal. You know, again, great guy. And I would never say anything bad about him as a person, but as a person that is in charge of an institution that needs major, major turnover, I don't think he has the insight or foresight to lead this particular department in the right direction.
KUT: Did the events of this weekend — seeing the thousands of people show up, and it was a largely peaceful protest overall — does it leave you more hopeful or are you worried the momentum won't last?
Moore: It's the ebb and flow, right? Like, the emotion and energy is high right now. But as the weeks go on, as time goes on, as things slowly begin to open up even more, and as COVID hopefully starts to go back to wherever the hell it came from, people are going to get back to their daily lives. And people are going to get back to working and providing for their families.
I think life is going to distract people from movement work, but there's going to be some people that are now so fully awakened that they're going to be doing this for the rest of their lives.
Got a tip? Email Nadia Hamdan at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @nadzhamz.
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