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By Jolie McCullough
At a campaign event in Dallas on Thursday, Gov. Greg Abbott issued a string of new legislative proposals to raise penalties and create new crimes for offenses committed at protests.
Abbott isn't on the Nov. 3 ballot, but the event was the Republican governor's latest move in a national political battle during a tumultuous election that has pitted police officers and fears of rising crime against calls for an end to police brutality and systemic racism. Abbott's proposals, offered at a press conference at the Dallas Police Association headquarters, in part mirror a controversial set of measures Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis proposed earlier this week.
"Today, we are announcing more legislative proposals to do even more to protect our law enforcement officers as well as do more to keep our community safe," said Abbott, who was flanked by police union officials, other Texas leaders and Republican politicians hoping to take Texas House seats from Dallas County Democrats in November.
The legislation, if passed by lawmakers in 2021, would create felony-level offenses for causing injury or destroying property during what is deemed to be a "riot." Blocking hospital entrances and using lasers to target police would also be felony offenses, Abbott said. Striking an officer with something like a water bottle would lead to a mandatory minimum of six months in jail.
Currently, the crime of "participating in a riot" is a misdemeanor offense in Texas with a maximum of six months in jail, and is labeled as a gathering of seven or more people that in part, creates a danger to a person or property. Many protesters in Texas have been arrested on suspicion of such offenses since protests erupted in May after the death of George Floyd. Others have been charged with felony-level crimes like assault on a police officer, including an 18-year-old who faces up to 20 years in prison for allegedly throwing a water bottle at an officer.
During a summer of national unrest after Floyd's death, protests in Texas sometimes turned unruly, leaving broken windows and dents in police vehicles, graffiti on government property and police officers with cuts and bruises. Most protests in Texas have been peaceful and have not left massive amounts of property damage — like burned buildings or looted storefronts — in their wake. Police have sprayed tear gas and pepper spray into crowds and fired bean bags out of shotguns at nonviolent demonstrators, sometimes seriously injuring them.
In recent months, the Austin City Council issued a vote of no confidence in police leadership to make changes to end police violence against people of color and, later, cut the department's budget. In Dallas, Police Chief U. Reneé Hall announced she would resign at the end of the year after her department's use of force during protests was heavily criticized.
Abbott's new proposal would also pursue organizers of unruly protests. A new felony offense would be created for those who "aid and abet riots with funds and organization assistance," he said, and give the Texas Attorney General power to pursue civil penalties against such organizations as well.
And it would also keep anyone arrested on suspicion of riot offenses in jail until they could see a court officer.
"We're tired of seeing all these rioters do their rioting, they get arrested, they go in, and 30 minutes later, they're back on the street," Abbott said.
In Florida, DeSantis also announced Monday a proposal to delay releasing people who could make bail.
Democrats in Florida slammed DeSantis' proposal as unconstitutional and fear mongering, according to the Tampa Bay Times. One Florida lawmaker said the governor had "declared war on our civil rights."
In Texas, the proposals already had fierce opposition from organizers. David Villalobos, with the Texas Organizing Project in Dallas, said he is concerned about how police are able to determine when something is a riot and who they will target, and how it will affect a community that already doesn't trust the police.
"We wouldn't want [police] to have this wide discretion to deem which protesters are taking part in disorderly conduct or unlawful protests," he said Thursday. "This seems like a step that would really try to stifle the voice of the people, the people's right to march and peacefully assemble."
In Austin, where City Council members last month cut the police budget amid an outcry to defund policing and reinvest in other social programs to reduce crime, Austin Justice Coalition Founder Chas Moore said it seemed "democracy is hanging on by a thread."
"I don't think the governor is moving in the right direction if he's trying to penalize people for protesting or speaking out against the things people have grievances about," he said. "It's not going to stop people from protesting, but I do think we have a more emboldened police department and police forces."
Juan Pablo Garnham contributed to this story.
The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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After Austin voters passed Proposition B, reinstating a ban on public camping, City Council directed staff to look into possible sanctioned campsites where homeless residents could live legally. Now two members are asking to shelve discussion on the controversial topic.
Staff presented dozens of possible sanctioned campsites across each fo the 10 council districts in late May, following the election. But members mostly pushed back on the proposed locations, citing cost, wildfire risk and lack of transparency as concerns.
With updated criteria, staff recommended two sites—one in District 1 and the other in District 8—for further review last week. After being briefed on the options during Tuesday's work session, Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison, who represents District 1, and Council Member Paige Ellis, who represents District 8, issued a joint statement proposing "a pause" on further discussion of temporary sanctioned encampments.
"We are not convinced that these sites would be a cost-effective solution, but rather a band-aid tactic when we need to be supporting the long-term strategy to get folks off the street permanent," they said. "It is our responsibility to look at the situation holistically and objectively, and to spend out city's limited resources on solutions we know can work."
Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey noted that the two locations were imperfect and would require a lot of time and money to outfit as sanctioned campsites during the briefing.
City staff and homeless experts have previously raised concerns about sanctioned encampments, saying they are expensive to maintain, challenging to manage and hard to close, even when intended to to be temporary.
In 2019, staff declined to make recommendations for such sites despite being directed by council to do so, citing 2018 guidance from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. "Neither authorized encampments nor parking areas provide housing for people experiencing homelessness," staff wrote in a memo. "Rather, each option detracts from the staff resources assigned to addressing this moral imperative."
But with Prop B being enforced and too few shelter beds and affordable units for the estimate unsheltered homeless population in Austin, the city is facing the same predicament that prompted District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo to pursue possible sanctioned campsites in the first place: "When individuals in encampments ask where they should go, we need to have places to suggest," she said at a May 6 council meeting.
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Don't lose your mask just yet—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it is now recommending masks in areas that are surging as cases rise nationwide and the Delta variant looms.
The CDC announced Tuesday that even fully vaccinated individuals should mask up indoors if their community is experiencing substantial transmission—defined as areas with more than 50 cases per 100,000 people. Travis County is sitting at an average of 94.59 cases per 100,000 over the past seven days, falling into the highest risk category, according to the CDC.
#DeltaVariant surging in U.S. New data show Delta much more contagious than previous versions of #COVID19. Unvaccinated people: get vaccinated & mask until you do. Everyone in areas of substantial/high transmission should wear a mask, even if vaccinated. https://t.co/tt49zOEC8N
— CDC (@CDCgov) July 27, 2021
After two COVID-19 recommendation stage jumps in the last two weeks, from Stage 2 to Stage 4, Austin-area cases are the highest they have been since February. The seven-day average for cases is on an upward trend, reaching 226 on Tuesday.
The CDC is also recommending that all students K-12 wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. A May executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott prohibits schools from requiring masks, regardless of vaccination status. Austin ISD is "strongly" encouraging students to wear masks.
Although vaccinated individuals are still protected against the most severe symptoms of the variant, infections are spreading rapidly and now make up 83% of confirmed cases in the U.S. At least a dozen cases of the delta variant have been confirmed in the Austin area, though there are likely more since testing for it is limited.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that hospital admissions are "almost exclusively" coming from people who are unvaccinated but those who are vaccinated can still catch and spread the virus.
"Unlike the alpha variant that we had back in May, where we didn't believe that if you were vaccinated you could transmit further, this is different now with the Delta variant," Walensky said. "That leads us to believe that the breakthrough infections, rare that they are, have the potential to pool and transmit at the same with the same capacity as an unvaccinated person."
Research suggests those who become infected carry 1,000 times more of the virus than other variants and could stay contagious for longer.The announcement comes on the heels of the Biden administration ramping up cautionary measures in the face of the Delta variant. Just last week, the CDC said it had no plans to change its May guidance of vaccinated not having to wear masks unless there was a significant change in the data. Officials met on Sunday night to review new evidence, according to reports.
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The Moody Center, a $338 million, 530,000-square-foot multipurpose arena at the University of Texas at Austin, celebrated its topping out on Tuesday.
With the final beam placed, the arena's steel-frame structural phase—which involved more than 5.3 million pounds of steel—is complete.
"This past year has been full of unprecedented events, not to mention weather challenges, and yet the women and men working on this project continue to deliver," Moody Center General Manager and Senior Vice President Jeff Nickler said in a press release.
To celebrate the topping out Oak View Group, the development and investment firm behind the Moody Center will affix a tree to the final beam in keeping with the time-honored tradition.
The practice dates back to ancient Scandinavian religious rites, which involved placing a tree atop new buildings to appease tree-dwelling spirits displaced during the construction process, according to the International Association of Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Ironworkers in Washington D.C.
After the steel-frame structure phase, the development will move on to enclosing and finishing the interior of the Moody Center.
The arena is set to open next April and already has some major acts scheduled for its inaugural year, including The Weeknd, Justin Bieber, John Mayer and The Killers. It will replace the 43-year-old Frank C. Erwin Jr. Center and serve as the home of UT's men's and women's basketball games, among other sports and community events.
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