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Mayor touts justice agenda, Project Connect in State of the City speech

Thursday, August 6, 2020 by Jo Clifton

Although “the current state of our city is anxious, troubled and hurting,” Mayor Steve Adler said during Wednesday’s State of the City address, the city has “a once-in-a-century opportunity to no longer be bound by who we were a year ago. Some greater power has reinvented us all.”

For Adler, now is the time to confront our biggest challenges. So, “let’s do big things. Let’s end homelessness. Let’s bring real mobility to Austin. Let’s reimagine how we keep one another safe. Let’s address race and do something about correcting centuries of injustice, because it is the fundamental injustice that fuels so many others.”

Adler said he was very proud that an insufficient number of Austin citizens had signed a petition seeking to put an item on the November ballot that would recriminalize homeless sleeping and sitting in public places. City Clerk Jannette Goodall announced Wednesday that the petitioners came up short of the number of signatures they needed.

He did not ignore Covid-19, but the majority of his speech was about the future he wants to see for Austin. Adler thanked Austinites for focusing on what it takes to prevent the spread of the virus, including wearing masks, social distancing and avoiding gatherings. “Today, it appears we’re in a plateau. That’s better than a surge – but still dangerous. The virus is real and the infectivity in our community is still too high.” That infectivity rate is currently at 10 to 15 percent, he said. “We need to get to under 5 percent.” He voiced a concern about the University of Texas hosting gatherings of 25,000 people for football games, saying, “I hope they don’t really try to do this.”

Adler noted that the city is “putting more than $200 million into programs and direct aid to mitigate the economic impact of the crisis. But it’s not enough. We need more federal help,” he said, urging Congress to pass the CARES II act.

To Adler, Covid-19, while emptying our roadways, has demonstrated once again that the city lacks the transportation infrastructure needed so that everyone, particularly those who must leave their homes to do their jobs, have an alternative to the single occupancy vehicle.

He urged Austinites to vote in favor of Project Connect, which he called “a bold transit plan for the just and accessible city we aspire to be. It certainly addresses traffic, but it will do so much more. With light rail, a downtown transit tunnel to speed up travel, no matter what vehicular mode you choose, new MetroRapid lines and vehicles, and a transition to a zero-emissions fleet, Project Connect will connect our entire city, creating new opportunities for Austinites, reducing our dependence on expensive personal vehicles, and save lives.”

After the speech, a member of the media asked Adler whether he thought people would want to vote to increase their taxes when they are already struggling to pay their bills. Adler said Project Connect would have a tax implication of about $23 a month on the average home, but he thought what the city would gain would be worth it.

Adler reiterated a number of ideas about reimagining the Austin Police Department, including moving a number of functions out from the police budget. Those might include 911 calls, victim services, dealing with mental health problems in the community, the training academy and internal affairs. He said he favors a six-month budget for the police at this time to give city management an opportunity to work on reimagining the department.

“Finally, on this subject, I want to address police department leadership. The discussion were having in Austin about trying to find the best ways to provide for public safety is the same as it is happening all over the country. We need partners and advisers in this search that are open to exploring and building on new ideas …. We need more than just a willingness to accept change if it happens; we need a champion for change at its best.”

Later, when the Austin Monitor asked whether that meant he wanted to replace Police Chief Brian Manley, Adler said, “I did not call for a new chief. I called for a chief who would embrace those values.”

Adler spoke at length about social justice issues. “We were not bystanders to the tragedy in Minnesota,” he said referring to the death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer. “Like cities around the country, we too have been living this perverse cycle of police violence, community outrage and precious few answers,” he said. The challenge of social justice, he said is “the kind of challenge that society can only pick up and resolve when confronted with the moment of such upheaval that fundamental change is not a choice, but the only option available.”

Adler said Austin and Texas were built at the expense of slaves. He noted that the first census of Austin in 1825 showed that the city had 450 slaves, 35 percent of the total population. In 1928, the city adopted a land plan forcing African Americans to leave their homes and move to the east side of town. More than a century of deliberate segregation and a lack of investment in that part of the community has led to great disparity between Black and Hispanic residents and white ones, he said.

Adler said he was adding his voice to those of other mayors “who are calling on Congress to develop and execute a national program of restitution for descendants of slaves in this country, to address the yawning chasm of a wealth gap between Black Americans that began with slavery and has widened over generations through Reconstruction, through the shameful scourge of Jim Crow and remains an insidious force to this very day.”

He added, “Tonight, I’m asking Council and the community to begin planning a pathway to atonement and restitution. There is already movement in this direction and we should support those who are trying to find a way forward. It will require us to be intentional about addressing our history and righting the wrongs. It is the work of saying ‘Black lives matter.'”

Adler concluded that he believes Covid-19 “will eventually be overshadowed by the big ideas it is helping to put into place. But even more important will be why and how we do the big things. Importantly, each promotes justice when analyzed through an equity lens. History will remember 2020 as the moment that pointed us in the direction of justice. Because this was the year that forced us to see injustice unlike any time before.”

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