Austin City Council takes first step toward creating a 'Black Embassy,' expresses support for reparations
Austin City Council directed staff to devise a plan to create a Black resource and cultural center in East Austin as part of the consent agenda for its Thursday meeting. Members also voted to formally apologize for the city's participation in the enslavement of Black people, segregation and other institutionally racist practices, such as urban renewal programs, and to express support for a national program of financial reparations for descendants of slaves.
"We cannot move forward unless we recognize the city's role in creating the Black and white wealth gap," Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison said during the meeting. "Gap isn't even the right word. It's a chasm."
Council members cited racial disparities among Austinites when it comes to life expectancy; homelessness rates; median family income; the likelihood of being stopped, searched and arrested by police; college graduation rates; and health insurance coverage.
"These statistics reflect not a deficit of ability, ambition or effort, but rather a shameful combination of racist policy compounded by decades of inattention and disinvestment by Austin's privileged, mostly white leadership over the ensuing generations," Mayor Steve Adler said.
The resolution, which was drafted with help from the Black Austin coalition, directs City Manager Spencer Cronk to return to council by Aug. 1 with a plan and funding recommendation for a new, centrally located "Black Embassy," geared to success and cultural promotion of Black-led businesses and organizations.
"The live music capital of the world will continue to fall short of that name until we have a proper music and art hub that promotes and celebrates East Austin's rich cultural legacies—past, present and future," Harper-Madison said.
Black Austinites are on the wrong side of a wealth chasm created by deliberate policies enacted by all levels of government, including Austin City Council. Today, we will take a big step towards closing that chasm. (1/5)
— Natasha Harper-Madison (@NatashaD1atx) March 4, 2021
A bill to "Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act" has been introduced in every session of the U.S. House since 1989, but it has never made it onto the floor for a vote. Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced her support for a commission on reparations in 2019. President Joe Biden also supports the study, his press secretary said during a White House press briefing last month.
"I am proud our city is adding its voice to those calling on Congress to develop and execute a national program of restitution for descendants of slaves in this country to address the yawning chasm, as the Mayor Pro Tem said, of the wealth gap between Black Americans that began with slavery, widened over generations through Reconstruction, through the shameful scourge of Jim Crow, that remains insidious to this day," Adler said.
Members also expressed the limitations of this resolution and promised to continue to address racist policies at the city level.
District 3 Council Member Sabino "Pio" Renteria spoke about his childhood in East Austin, where he "lived through this episode of seeing 'colors only' and 'whites only' signs at the Greyhound, going to Woolworth's and seeing the counter separating people." But he also expressed his frustration at the limits of what the city can do without the full support of the state, which prohibits, for example, inclusionary zoning programs that allow cities to require developers to provide affordable housing in exchange for zoning changes.
"We're going to be putting Band-Aids on it to stop the bleeding until the state gets behind the cities and gives us the resources and support," Renteria said. "I hope that I can see that within my lifetime, but I haven't seen it so far."
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Emmy Amash has always been the friend that people would go to with questions about sex, birth control and women’s health issues. It’s what called her to work as a birth doula and go to nursing school.
But during rotations around Austin, she’s noticed a shift in the trust between patients and healthcare providers, and it’s been happening under Texas’ Senate Bill 8, which bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy.
“What I've seen working in the emergency room with women who are coming in experiencing complications after or during a miscarriage is a lot of what feels to me like mistrust and hesitancy to be sharing complete histories of what's going on,” Amash said.
Over the last 10 months, SB 8 has had a chilling effect on healthcare workers and patients that’s endangering people’s lives, says a new study by the Texas Policy Evaluation Project in the New England Journal of Medicine. It also offers a glimpse at how the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade—which is expected to outlaw or restrict abortion in almost half of the states—will make the risks to patients more common.
The study shared findings based on interviews with Texas clinicians and 20 people who had medically complex pregnancies and sought care under SB 8. The law—which bans abortion before many even know that they are pregnant—is aimed at those providing abortion care. But researchers say that, to the detriment of patients, it has an effect on other health care workers.
For example, a woman who took part in the study reported receiving a fetal diagnosis of trisomy 18, a rare condition lacking a cure that causes most babies to die before they are born. But the woman’s physician didn’t inform her about termination options.
“When you already have received news like that and can barely function, the thought of then having to do your own investigating to determine where to get this medical care and to arrange going out of state feels additionally overwhelming,” the woman said.
On the health provider side, Amash understands the frustration and secrecy of patients, citing Lizelle Herrera’s case as an example of the kind of situation patients may worry about running into.
Herrera, a 26-year-old in the Rio Grande Valley, was arrested on a murder charge in April for a self-induced abortion. She was held in jail for three days on a $500,000 bond until a local district attorney dropped the case.
🚨Breaking News!!!🚨 Charges are being dismissed for Lizelle Herrera!!! #Justice4Lizellepic.twitter.com/yG15cw74Oi
— Frontera Fund (@LaFronteraFund) April 10, 2022
But there could be more instances like Herrera’s, and Amash talked about what it’s been like to continue working amid added restrictions on abortion rights. It’ll only continue given that Texas and a dozen other states have a trigger law making abortion illegal after the repeal of Roe v. Wade. In Texas; it’ll go into effect within 30 days.
“I feel like I've been holding my breath,” Amash said. She went on to describe “feeling powerless to this larger system that's making these choices that's so far removed from the actual lives of individuals.”
But local officials are taking action in light of the high court's decision. Austin City Council will hold a special meeting the week of July 18 on a resolution aimed at decriminalizing abortion. Submitted by council member Jose "Chito" Vela, it would direct the police department to make criminal enforcement, arrest and investigation of abortions its lowest priority. But for Central Texans, it may only allow for a patchwork system in which only abortions within the city escape criminalization.
“That's nice, and also, it's just not enough,” Amash said. “Not enough for how big Texas is for us to have one little area. There's a lot of people here that need care and aren't going to have access to it.”
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