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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A $500 million mixed-use development spanning 1,400 acres is coming to Southeast Austin, near Tesla’s headquarters at Giga Texas.
Plans for the development by Houston-based real estate firm Hines include 2,500 houses along with multi-family and townhomes, and commercial land. Hines is partnering with Trez Capital, Sumitomo Forestry and Texas-based Caravel Ventures.
The development, which is known as Mirador, will be located off the 130 Toll and Highway 71, which the developers say provides easy access to the Circuit of the Americas Formula 1 racetrack and other Austin attractions like restaurants, parks and live music venues.
Hines also boasts amenities like a 60-acre lake, over 600 acres of greenbelt, community parks, trails and a swimming pool.
“As Austin continues to grow into the tech epicenter of Texas, coupled with a supply-constrained market, the demand for new housing is at its highest,” Dustin Davidson, managing director at Hines, said. “Mirador will be critical in providing more options for Austin’s growing population and we are excited to work alongside our partners given they each provide a unique and valued perspective in single-family development.”
The local housing market has been hot in recent years, with home sales accelerating earlier in the pandemic. In July 2021, the Austin metro area hit its pricing peak at $478,000. As Austonia previously reported, the area has been expected to see the Tesla effect, with the new workforce driving up demand for housing and other services.
The single-family houses are expected to be developed over the course of six years, in phases. Construction on the homes is expected to start this year and home sales will begin in 2023.
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Editor's note: This story summarizes Sports Illustrated's story detailing Michael Center's involvement in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, based on interviews with SI's Jon Wertheim. Additionally, Austonia received comments from Michael Center, included in this story.
Confined to his couch, former Longhorns tennis coach Michael Center praised his players via FaceTime after the program he built produced the Longhorns’ first national championship in 2019—a bittersweet moment as Center faced federal charges as part of the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal.
His name dragged through the mud, Center was fired, arrested by the FBI and sentenced to six months in a Central Texas federal prison after pleading guilty to two charges related to mail fraud. And over a year after his release, Center told Sports Illustrated he doubts he was the only one in burnt orange involved.
When the Varsity Blues scandal broke out to the public in 2019, the investigation was a perfect storm for nationwide attention: Hollywood glamour, blue blood conspiracy and faith in the tried-and-true American education system came to a head as 33 movie stars and other elites were found guilty of paying more than $25 million to pave their children’s way into eight colleges, including the University of Texas.
UT was one of eight schools caught in the college admissions scandal. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
The figure behind Varsity Blues, “college consultant” Rick Singer, would plead guilty to four felony counts for faking SAT scores and bribing coaches at prominent universities for his elite clients—but not before throwing Center under the bus.
Singer's client, private equity executive Chris Schaepe, was looking for a way to bend UT's tight admissions policies for his son, who was seeking a position oddly as a manager on UT’s basketball team. Through a middleman, Singer contacted Center, who eventually agreed.
Schaepe's son hadn't played tennis since his freshman year of high school. It was a detail that Center says passed through plenty of hands before he was admitted, including "academic support staff, the compliance office, the sports supervisor and, ultimately, the athletic director," SI's Jon Wertheim writes.
No one in the entire athletic department, including seven "risk management and compliant services department" employees, was named, implicated or punished. After an internal investigation, Center was the only one named in the Varsity Blues "subterfuge" in a September 2019 UT news release signed by the university president.
He told Austonia he was never contacted by the university during the investigation, and when the NCAA interviewed him for its investigation, he says it cleared him of any violations.
“I almost fell out of my chair,” Center said. “I literally couldn’t breathe. There’s no college coach in America—much less at a state school, much less a coach of a nonrevenue sport—who can admit an athlete without consulting other people in the athletic department. What they were asking people to believe, it’s just impossible.” SI said Center's assertion was backed by multiple UT coaches and administrators at other schools.But why would the Forty Acres be complicit?
Center said UT’s then newly named athletic director Steve Patterson made clear that Center suddenly was responsible for more than building a successful tennis program. He was to be a "fundraiser first and coach second" and he would need to find donors to fund a new tennis facility. Patterson admitted to SI that he wanted his coaches to find donors and said the department was "$15 million in the red" when he started in 2013, though he denies any knowledge of the false tennis recruitment.
Center said he knew he would be "considered a team player" if he let in the son of a Silicon Valley magnate. And sure enough, Schaepe immediately began pulling out his wallet, donating $100,000 to UT tennis and a six-figure check to the school's communication program.
"I never entered this as a way to profit. This was a fundraising mission where I made a terrible mistake at the end,"
Months after Schaepe's son was admitted, Center agreed to meet Singer at the Austin airport and found himself accepting a backpack filled with $60,000 in cash meant for him, personally. He said he immediately knew he had made a mistake. He told SI “I put the money in my basement and gave most of it away.”
“Why did I do it?” Center told Sports Illustrated. "I go to bed and wake up each day asking myself the same question. I had to convince myself that I somehow deserved the money."
Once in court, Center showed texts with UT's compliance official and mentioned Chris Plonsky, a department executive involved in "overseeing men’s tennis, compliance, academic support (which generates letters of intent) and the Longhorn Foundation," according to SI.
“I knew I had to answer for my guilt,” Center said. “But I was like, 'Man, schools are going to get hammered.'"'
INMATE 77806-112 but out on Sunday: Actor Felicity Huffman in prison uniform outside low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin to visit actor husband William H. Macy & their daughter. Huffman admitted to paying $15K to have fixer boost daughter’s SAT score. 📸: @TMZ pic.twitter.com/9jALmqnA0U
— Henry K. Lee (@henrykleeKTVU) October 21, 2019
But Center was the only Longhorn to go down for the crimes. “I was no rogue actor,” Center said. “And this wasn’t my word against their word. There were signatures that went along with it. That’s the system... There wasn’t one point in the process where I thought people wanted to learn the whole truth.”
Back at home in Austin, Center watched as actress Felicity Huffman served just eleven days for her part in the scandal. Some served up to five months; others simply paid a fine, and others, like Singer, await sentencing.
And because the prosecution chose to blame individual coaches, framing schools as victims in the case, universities like UT have received less than a slap on the wrist for their possible involvement.
“I was always taught that actions have consequences,” Center said. “What I’ve come to realize is that, yes, for some people actions absolutely do have consequences. Serious, heavy ones. For others, actions can have no consequences at all.”
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