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'We absolutely have an obligation to respond': Austin City Council issues call to action over police violence
Austin City Council members said they are committed to systemic reforms following four days of protests at which there was police violence against demonstrators, vandalism and looting. Two people—a 20-year-old black man and a 16-year-old—are currently hospitalized after they were shot with bean bag rounds over the weekend.
"I am angry and I am hurt and I am sad, and you should be too," Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison said, in tears, during an emotional call to action at a virtual work session earlier today. "It didn't start with George Floyd. It didn't start with Mike Ramos. I could name names all day, and that's a damn shame y'all."
She called for police reform and a review of the city's budget, which will be developed in the coming months. "We absolutely have an obligation to respond, and my hope is that we will and do so in a way that is substantive and meaningful," she said
Council will formally discuss the protests again at a Thursday meeting, where the Austin Police Department will brief members on the weekend's events and the use of force against protestors.
But in opening statements on Tuesday, members started to consider what reforms might be on the table.
As is the case in most cities, the Austin Police Department is the single largest general fund expense. In the fiscal year 2019-20 budget, it accounted for 40% of the $1.1 billion fund. Local activist groups, including Grassroots Leadership and Communities of Color United, are calling for defunding APD.
"When we're talking about systemic change, we're talking about all the systems," Harper-Madison said. "It's not just one system."
Mayor Steve Adler said at the work session that he hopes the protests, like the pandemic, serve as an opportunity to make Austin a better place. "I really do believe that this is an important watershed moment," he said.
Other council members acknowledged the limits of their authority. "We work on this all the time here," Council Member Greg Casar said in response to Harper-Madison's comments. "But it's so clear that we haven't done enough, and what you're speaking to is that we're not even close."
Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said his perspective has changed since the weekend and that he is committed to supporting his colleagues of color in pushing for change, despite the roadblocks. "These systems are not designed to go quickly," he added.
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After reaching Stage 4 last week of Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines, Austin-Travis County is now at the Stage 5 threshold with a seven-day average of 50 hospitalizations and dwindling ICU capacity.
While unenforceable under Gov. Greg's Abbott order against local mandates, vaccinated individuals are asked to choose drive-through and curbside options, outdoor activities, social interactions with limited group sizes, as well as social distance and wearing masks indoors. Partially or unvaccinated individuals are asked to avoid gatherings, travel, dining and shopping, choose curbside and delivery options, as well as wear a mask on essential trips.
Flashing back to early-pandemic times, hospitals are at critical capacity—the 11 county Trauma Service Region of 2.3 million people is fluctuating at 16 staffed beds, according to APH.
In a statement on behalf of Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's Healthcare, a spokesperson said that hospitals are asking residents to "help us and each other" by getting vaccinated and continuing to utilize safety practices to slow the spread of the virus.
According to the statement, a "longstanding" nurse staffing challenge combined with the recent COVID-19 spike is putting "extraordinary pressure" on hospital systems.
Along with the unmitigated spread of the virus in unvaccinated, the more contagious Delta variant is also to blame for the spike in cases. The seven-day moving average of COVID hospitalizations in the Austin area reached the Stage 5 threshold of 50 on Friday, triggering local health officials to ask residents to take action.
Local hospitals have a "surge plan" that includes utilization of "all available patient care space and employees within our hospitals and in other settings" that will go into effect when capacity is hit, according to the statement.
The hospitals are working on sourcing supplemental staff and emphasized that emergency care will still be available but it may involve patient transfers "in order to provide the most appropriate care."
Healthcare systems have hit this threshold previously during the pandemic: the city held an alternate care site at the Austin Convention Center from January to March of this year.
"Our responsibility during this pandemic continues to be balancing our readiness to care for patients with COVID-19, while making sure patients who depend on our hospitals receive needed and timely care," the statement said. "We do not want to see necessary non-COVID care delayed as it was during the early stages of the pandemic."
This story has been updated to after publication to include that Austin has reached the Stage 5 threshold.
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Austin legend Willie Nelson will perform at the Texas Capitol today, his first large performance since the pandemic began, closing out a four-day long march across Central Texas to build support for federal voting protections.
Organized by The Poor People's Campaign, the march began in Georgetown on Wednesday and will end with a 10 a.m. rally at the Capitol featuring appearances from former U.S. Congressman Beto O'Rourke and Rev. Dr. William Barber.
Willie Nelson (with Charlie Sexton & friends) will play a free concert at the Poor People's Campaign march for democracy & justice in Austin this Saturday! https://t.co/zZSA0BpbWA
Sign up to join us and see Willie at 10am Saturday: https://t.co/KrDPIFIvST
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) July 29, 2021
The rally calls on Congress to "stop attacks on democracy" by ending the filibuster, pass all provisions of the For the People Act, restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act, raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and pass permanent protections for all 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Nelson denounced election law proposals gaining traction in red states, such as Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3 in Texas, which 55 House Democrats foiled by fleeing to Washington, D.C., on July 12.
The bills would require additional ID verifications for mail-in ballots, allow partisan poll watchers "free movement" and prohibit elections officials from sending absentee ballot applications to voters who didn't request one.
"Laws making it more difficult for people to vote are unAmerican and are intended to punish people of color, the elderly and disabled," Nelson said. "If you can't win by playing the rules, then it's you and your platform–not everyone else's ability to vote."
The march is in the spirit of the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which protested the blocking of Black Americans' right to vote by Jim Crow laws.