Hundreds of community activists from across Texas gathered on the steps of the state Capitol on Tuesday to call on Republicans and Democrats to pass legislation to overhaul the criminal justice system here.
Austin Justice Coalition, Black Lives Matter Houston, the Community Advocacy & Healing Project and Indivisible Austin were among the organizations that organized the Rally for Criminal Justice Reform event, on the 55th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
“I think that this is the first time so many organizations have gotten together and said, 'Hey, let's come together at the table and let’s strategize for the [legislative] session,’” Chas Moore, cofounder of the Austin Justice Coalition, said. “‘Let’s strategize some of our common goals and look at how we come at these things.’”
The activists marched from the African American History Memorial to the Capitol to hear a lineup of speakers, including Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Congressman Beto O’Rourke, state Rep. Senfronia Thompson and Mike Collier, who is running for lieutenant governor.
“We found out through speaking with a lot of our [lawmakers] that they had fear of messaging,” said Robert Williams, who spearheaded the event. “A lot of them felt that it was actually a liability to their campaigns [to talk about criminal justice issues] and so this rally is going to be an education tool of sorts."
The event commemorated the 1963 march in Washington, D.C., which drew 250,000 people advocating for the rights of African-Americans. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream" speech at the gathering.
“We’re still failing on the promises of equality and opportunity and that’s why we gather here today,” Adler said. “I’m proud to be a part of a city that recognizes that we have these issues, but we still have a long way to go.”
Texas has the seventh highest incarceration rate in the U.S., and the largest inmate population in the country, about 163,000 people.
Speakers called on politicians to address the school-to-prison pipeline, mass incarceration and private prisons, and to raise the age at which people can be tried as adults from 17 to 18. According to a Texas Tribune analysis, 41 percent of people involved in police-involved shootings in Texas’ 36 largest cities between 2010 and 2015 were black. African-Americans accounted for just 14 percent of the population, however.
“If these people are not going to push criminal justice forward, then we’re going it keep perpetuating the cycle of doing nothing,” Moore said. “We’re trying to keep the conversation going, and it’s important moving toward [the legislative] session next year.”
After the rally, organizers gathered in the Capitol to talk about bail reform, the Sandra Bland Act, prison oversight and transparency.
“We are going to put criminal justice reform in the mouths of these candidates and hopefully on the ballot in November,” Williams said.