Protests and Plague in the Lone Star State
Interstate 35 is a six-lane scar that runs through the middle of Austin. To the south, the highway runs all the way down to the Mexican border. To the North, it zig-zags up to Minneapolis, where, on May 25th, Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, handcuffed and asphyxiated a black man named George Floyd. When I-35 was completed in 1962, it became a concrete barrier that divided the city, with black Austin to the east and white Austin to the west. It has been a symbol of segregation and racial injustice ever since.
On Saturday afternoon, the highway was blocked by hundreds of people protesting police brutality and demanding justice for Floyd, who had been born and raised in Houston. Traffic was backed up for miles, while city and state police in riot gear attempted to control the protesters by forming a line and slowly pushing them off the highway. “This is my city, not yours! You work for me!” a black woman beside me shouted at a white officer standing stone-faced a few feet in front of her. “Murderers!” a white man with a black power fist on his T-shirt yelled. Others waved signs that said “I Can’t Breathe” or “We Remember Michael,” referring to Michael Ramos, a 42-year-old black man who was shot to death during a confrontation with Austin police officers last month. Below the highway, in front of the Austin police headquarters, an even larger crowd had gathered, chanting “Black Lives Matter!” at another line of cops in riot gear who were protecting the building. You could feel the rage that would erupt later that night baking into the crowd — police and protesters alike — in the Texas heat.
I walked down the highway away from the protesters, toward a motorcycle cop who had just pulled up. I told him I was a journalist and asked him how he felt about these protests. I have been a journalist for a long time and have never been wary about introducing myself before. Then again, I’ve never heard of journalists shot point-blank by cops with rubber bullets. But the officer, who asked me not to use his name (it was printed on the right breast of his uniform), seemed grateful to talk. “I don’t want to do this,” he told me. He was white, in his 40s. “I don’t want to be here. I don’t want them to be here,” he said, nodding toward the protesters. He didn’t sound angry. He sounded sad.
I climbed down the side of the I-35 overpass through blooming Texas wildflowers toward the protesters in front of the police station. I noticed a white man and woman lingering in the shadows of a gas station, pistols prominently displayed on their hips. A black man in his 20s walked by them, wearing a big mirror on his chest with a sign above that said “Killer.” He nodded at the couple, and the couple nodded back. In Texas, more than any other place I’ve been in America, violence and civility live side by side.
In front of the police station, I watched the crowd taunt the cops who were protecting the building. It was a tense, chaotic scene. A man with a chicken on his shoulder ran past me. Another man offered water to anyone who needed it. Someone unfurled a big American flag on the highway embankment. Almost everyone wore masks, which felt like a gesture of solidarity. A white woman beside me noticed me writing in my notebook.
“I love this city,” she said to me, “but it’s more fucked up than it looks.”
Texas is where many Americans imagine their future. And no wonder: It’s a diverse, sunny state with plentiful jobs and big skies. Of the 15 fastest growing cities in the country last year, six were in Texas. You can drive along I-35 between Austin and San Antonio and see housing developments eating up the prairie like wood and stucco starfish. “The Texas Miracle,” as the Lone Star economy is sometimes called — built on sprawl and oil and technology — is a giant engine of consumption.
It’s a state with a history of genuinely tough characters, from frontiersman Jim Bowie to writer Molly Ivins. “Texans are a legendarily hardy people,” began an essay in Texas Monthly written in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017. After last weekend’s protests, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, openly bucked President Trump’s threat to send the U.S. military into states to crack down on the violence. “We will not be asking the U.S. military to come to our state because Texans can take care of Texans,” Abbott said.
As if to prove Abbott’s point, 60,000 people marched in downtown Houston on Tuesday to demand justice and accountability for George Floyd, led by a group of black horseback riders (one wore a T-shirt that said “Black Cowboys Matter”). It was a moving and peaceful demonstration, with both protesters and police taking a knee to honor Floyd.
In Houston, one of the most diverse cities in America, African Americans make up about 23 percent of the population. Austin, on the other hand, is overwhelmingly white and Latino. A few decades ago, African Americans made up about 15 percent of the city’s population; today it is only about 8 percent. But when it comes to wealth, the divide between whites and everyone else is stark. According to a 2019 report by Prosperity Now, a Washington, D.C. think tank, the median family income for white households in Austin is $72,341; for Latinos, it’s only $44,239; for African Americans, $40,004. A similar racial divide is obvious in property values. In 2016, the median property value for white homeowners in Austin was $320,000. For both black and Latino homeowners, it was $170,000. “This racial wealth divide is not a naturally occurring event,” Jeremie Greer, vice president of policy and research at Prosperity Now, has said. “It’s not something that was created by a higher power; it’s not in our DNA. It’s man-made.”
In early March, when the coronavirus arrived in Texas, it was like being on a Ferris wheel that suddenly stops turning. My fiancé and I live in a small house in Austin. We were lucky – we both have jobs that allow us to work from home. Still, we worried about our families, who were far away. Several friends were hospitalized with COVID-19. One day, while walking on Lamar Boulevard near Lady Bird Lake, I encountered a homeless man with a sign that said, “No work No food No virus No apology.” I wasn’t sure what it meant, but I gave him $5 and wished him well. I thought about how microbes so small that 500 million of them could fit in the period at the end of this sentence can exploit our network of planes, trains, and cars to spread around the world in a matter of weeks and bring human civilization to a standstill.
In Austin, the death rate hasn’t spiked the way it did in New York during late March and April. Still, it was eerie how quickly life changed. Traffic vanished. You could hear the birds again (or at least, I was paying attention to them again). Next door to us, construction was halted on some investment banker’s Dream Home. The house is the embodiment of the wealth gap here, which is turning formerly modest neighborhoods of professors and firemen into playgrounds for the architectural fantasies of one-percenters. But for a blissful few days, the endless jackhammering to dig a bizarrely deep basement in a shelf of limestone was silenced. Was it for a wine cellar? A shooting range? A sex dungeon? In Texas, you never know.
As of June 1st, there have been 64,287 cases of COVID-19 in Texas, and 1,672 deaths. The infection rate had been declining for a few weeks, but on May 31st, there were 1,949 new cases, the biggest one-day jump since the pandemic began. Nevertheless, Texas is open for business again. Gov. Abbott made some pretense of doing a phased opening, giving some patina of social responsibility to it all, but in Texas political poker, the economy always trumps public health. And not surprisingly, construction has resumed on the Dream Home next door (I’m listening to workers pound in steel beams as I write this). But now, with the coronavirus replicating and racial tension boiling, it feels less like a Dream Home than a fortress against a rapidly unraveling world.
In Texas, like most of America, the big cities — Austin, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio — are led by Democratic mayors. In contrast, thanks largely to aggressive gerrymandering, the Texas legislature is controlled by Republicans. In the aftermath of last weekend’s riots, the consequences of the failure of liberal mayors around the country to restrain their city police forces has been all too obvious. But in the early days of the pandemic, it was the Democratic mayors, backed by clear-thinking judges, who saved Texas.
In Austin, Mayor Adler has been a particularly comforting presence. He has been an aggressive advocate of masks and social distancing, even when his local orders have been big-footed by Gov. Abbott, who has done his best to titillate the Fox News crowd by equating face masks with tyranny (last week he appeared on Fox News calling shutdown measures “government-enforced poverty.”) Adler, on the other hand, has become the Mr. Rogers of the pandemic in Austin. Every night, he broadcasts a “Got a Minute?” live video from his home office, updating Austinites with the latest statistics, always in a calm, neighborly manner. He’s gotten grief from local restaurateurs for not lifting social distancing orders soon enough – the owner of Vince Young Steakhouse in downtown Austin used Twitter to attack Adler for extending stay-at-home orders. (Just to make their views crystal clear, they accompanied their tweet with a GIF of Austin cyclist Lance Armstrong flipping the bird.)
The pandemic has also given fuel to the Texas conspiracy mongers and prairie dog Christians, some of whom have stoked the fires of civil unrest. Chief among them is Alex Jones, the founder of InfoWars, who organized several demonstrations at the capitol in Austin in April. These small “You Can’t Close America” rallies were attended by fellow conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers and were designed to dupe local media into believing there was actually some groundswell of support for their crackpot views. (As a recent piece in The Guardian pointed out, these protests were not evidence of popular uprising, but funded by many of the same right-wing billionaires and corporations that brought you the Tea Party movement and climate change denial.)
The King Clown in Texas, however, is Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a former Houston radio talk show host who fuses Christian zealotry with show-biz theatrics. In the 1990s, he had a vasectomy while broadcasting live on his radio show. In 2002, he published a book, The Second Most Important Book You Will Ever Read: A Personal Challenge to Read the Bible. When Patrick ran for lieutenant governor in 2014, he compared immigration into Texas to an invasion and accused immigrants of bringing diseases. As Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political science at the University of Houston put it, “Dan Patrick was Donald Trump before Donald Trump was.”
In April, while the virus was spiking all around the country, Patrick appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight to argue that if re-opening Texas meant that a few hundred thousand old people had to die, so be it. “There are more important things than living, and that’s saving this country for my children and grandchildren and saving this country for all of us,” he told Carlson. “I don’t want to die. Nobody wants to die, but man, we gotta take some risks and get back in the game and get this country back up and running.”
That’s easy to say if you’re a white man in a suit. As far as I can tell, Latinos do the majority of the hard, risky work in Texas, from road-building to construction to grocery-stocking, while the CEOs and politicians who were calling for a rapid opening in Texas were mostly sitting inside worrying about their stock portfolios. In Austin last month, Latinos were more than three times as likely to test positive for COVID-19 than any other ethnic or racial group. And they have suffered more, too. Latinos, who make up about 34 percent of the city’s population, represented 62.1 percent of all hospitalizations related to COVID-19 (African-Americans made up 12.1 percent).
The so-called Texas Miracle has been hit hard by the shut-down. The unemployment rate in the state is 12.8 percent, with 2.2 million people out of work. That’s not as bad as Michigan, where the unemployment rate is a staggering 23 percent, but it’s the worst on record in Texas.
Texas isn’t as oil-dependent as it once was, but the collapse in oil prices that followed the shutdown has still been a major blow. A survey by the Kansas City Federal Reserve projects 40 percent of U.S. oil firms will go bankrupt if prices remain at low levels. Rystad, a human resources consultancy, projected 220,000 oil workers would lose their jobs. Houston, the capital of Big Oil, is already reeling. The city’s real estate market is falling. Dale Craymer, the president of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, has estimated that the state loses $85 million a year for every $1 drop in oil prices. By one calculation, Texas has already lost at least $1 billion in revenue from the oil and gas industry.
You can already see what’s coming: The number of Texas families that applied for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program doubled in March compared with the same period last year. Rent programs ran dry in various cities. Cities are furloughing and laying off employees, and officials have already ordered state agencies to begin making budget cuts.
And all this in a state that is not exactly known for a strong social safety net. Last week, the Texas Supreme Court lifted its temporary ban on evictions and debt collection, putting thousands of residents across the state at risk of losing their homes. One measure of how dire the situation is: A $15 million city of Houston rental assistance fund was drained by applicants in 90 minutes.
It’s not like the state of Texas is going to go bankrupt anytime soon; it has a $10 billion rainy day fund that it can tap into. But Republicans who control the Texas legislature are in no hurry to dip into it, especially not to bail out people who are struggling, especially if they happen to be brown or black people.
And looming over all this are the ever-escalating risks of life in a superheated climate. Texas is a big state that’s on the front lines of the climate crisis, vulnerable to heat waves, drought, flooding, and hurricanes. Thanks in part to rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, which magnify the size and intensity of storms, scientists have forecast a particularly active hurricane season this year. Imagine Hurricane Harvey, which displaced 39,000 people and caused $125 billion worth of damage when it hit Houston in 2017, blowing into the city today. Will rescue workers risk contracting the virus to help people? Where will crowded shelters become disease-factories? How would a city that is already reeling begin to recover from a disaster like that? People of color were hit hardest by Harvey, and had the toughest time recovering — will it be any different next time? The city of Houston is going green fast — it committed to 100 percent renewable energy and recently released a climate action plan. But the tragic paradox of Houston is that its wealth and economic power remain tied to Big Oil, which, in the long run, is also the engine of the city’s destruction.
A few hours before protesters shut down I-35, I drove out to Kyle, a fast-growing city just south of Austin, where the Central Texas Food Bank was holding a mass food distribution. When I arrived at 8 a.m., about 300 cars were waiting in an empty parking lot near a Home Depot: beat-up Chevys, Cadillac Escalades, pick-up trucks covered with mud. Nearby, workers and volunteers had set up a remarkably well-organized drive-through distribution line. People drove up, popped their trunks, and volunteers loaded them up with boxes of frozen pork, fresh fruit and vegetables, cans of tuna and beans, and a gallon of milk.
As he watched the cars pull up, Derrick Chubbs, the president and CEO of the Central Texas Food Bank, who is black and formerly worked in marketing at IBM, explained that this mass distribution of food is not how they usually operate. “We usually distribute food through churches and shelters and other organizations,” Chubbs says. “But because of COVID, the demand for food has been so great that we’ve had to figure out a new way to get more food out to people.” Celia Cole, the CEO of Feeding Texas, which runs 21 food banks around the state, including the Central Texas Food Bank, says that in the six weeks between April 6th and May 22nd, food banks in Texas distributed over one million pounds of food. “That’s roughly double the demand in Texas before COVID hit,” Cole says.
I walked along the line of cars, talking with people about what brought them there. It was a parade of hardship. Most of them had seen flyers about the food distribution on Facebook or other social media. Few had ever been to a food bank before. Most were Latino. Many were young, with families. I talked with Angie Hernandez, who was waiting in an old Ford Explorer with two kids in car seats in the back. She said her husband had a good job with an air-conditioning company, but had been out of work because, with COVID, nobody wanted strangers in their home. In the car behind her, a Latino man in his sixties told me he was taking care of his wife, who has COVID. A man in a private security officer’s uniform rolled up his window and declined to talk. A college student in an old Camero said, “Fuck, man, I’m trying to take care of my mom. I’m not going to turn down free food.” A woman who only identified herself as Maria told me she is feeding a family of 10 at home. As we talked, an older woman in the passenger seat said something to her in Spanish that I didn’t understand. Maria translated: “She said she wanted me to tell you, ‘We are scared, and we hope America gets better soon.’”
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