City Hall comments on campus

All but a couple Council members felt compelled to comment.

City Hall comments on campus

Have a good weekend! I'll see you on Monday!

I wasn't at UT yesterday, but the prevailing interpretation of the events from journalists and free speech groups is that a peaceful protest was needlessly escalated by law enforcement deployed by Gov. Greg Abbott and UT president Jay Hartzell.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a nonpartisan advocacy group that defends free speech and academic freedom in higher education, described the police response as a "chilling show of force" and said that Gov. Greg Abbott's "public commentary makes his disregard for the First Amendment’s protection of political speech clear."

It's worth noting that FIRE is hardly a lefty group –– it frequently clashes with universities over rules that cater to progressive impulses and it has been very critical of DEI policies that it views as compelling or restricting speech.

The free speech hypocrisy is unsurprising, of course. It is similarly predictable that the same GOP leaders who barely raised their eyebrows when one of their top allies was caught spending the day with a literal Nazi now claim to be deeply concerned about anti-Semitism.

Even a journalist got arrested:

What was APD doing there?

Hartzell called in the UTPD, Abbott called in the state troopers ... but who called in the Austin Police Dept? Here's what APD tells me:

At the request of University of Texas Police Department (UTPD), the Austin Police Department (APD) continues to be on stand-by and ready to assist UTPD in regards to any possible incidents near the University of Texas (UT) campus. 
Initially, UTPD requested assistance with arrestee transport. As the incident progressed, UTPD requested additional assistance from APD with monitoring and handcuffing individuals they had arrested at the scene. 
APD is aware of images circulating on social media depicting our officers handcuffing individuals at the scene, however these were not APD arrests and were only done to support the arrests being made by UTPD.

I asked Austin Police Association president Michael Bullock why APD's participation was necessary. His response:

Anytime large scale gatherings happen within city limits, especially unpermitted ones, we are often called on to assist or respond. That’s done not only to help fellow agencies we work with regularly, but also because it’s likely any protest occurring at UTPD or the Capitol is likely to spill over into our jurisdiction as well. I’m incredibly proud of our APD officers for the way they have handled everything thus far amongst all the other challenges we’re currently facing.

UT professor Jeremi Suri, who happens to be Jewish and also happens to be married to Council Member Alison Alter, said the police "provoked violence."

Suri, for what it's worth, has a long record of criticizing local police on social media.

Elected officials respond –– but not Watson

Among local elected officials who commented on the matter, the vast majority criticized the suppression of speech.

Council members Vanessa Fuentes, Jose Velasquez, Chito Vela, Ryan Alter, Paige Ellis, Zo Qadri and Alison Alter all deplored the response by Abbott and/or UT yesterday or early this morning.

Mackenzie Kelly, Council's lone Republican, went in another direction, accusing the protesters of seeking to "scare, threaten and intimidate Jewish Austinites."

Suffice it to say, many Jews, including one of Kelly's colleague Alison Alter, do not view protests against Israel's war in Gaza as inherently anti-Semitic.

In response to Kelly's tweet, Mariette Hummel, erstwhile Cap Metro comms director, recalled how diplomatically APD officers engaged with the neo-Nazis who came to town nearly three years ago:

At the time I didn't fault the cops who engaged cordially with the Nazis and I did not see the officer accepting a handshake (or Covid fist bump, to be specific) from one of the scumbags as an endorsement of their vile message. But there's something very wrong if pro-Palestinian protesters are treated worse by the police than avowed Nazis.

Watson waits

There were two people on the Council dais who did immediately comment on the protests: Council Member Leslie Pool and Mayor Kirk Watson.

This is not particularly surprising given Watson's close ties to state GOP leaders and the UT. Those close to him would argue that him commenting on this matter will change nothing but might jeopardize relationships with Abbott, Patrick et al that may prove helpful in preventing further legislative attacks on the city.

In a statement, mayoral candidate Doug Greco criticized the participation of APD in suppressing the protests and likened Watson's silence on the matter to his collaboration with DPS last year.

"Mayor Watson stood with Governor Abbott and supported the City’s last joint action with DPS troopers to patrol Austin neighborhoods, which was abruptly ended because 90% of arrests were with Black and Latino Austin residents," he said. "Does the Mayor stand with the Governor again on sending in DPS and APD to arrest nonviolent, peaceful student protesters?"

However, at 3 pm today, the mayor finally released a statement that called the state's response "escalated" and "unwarranted."

Mayoral candidate Kathie Tovo similarly said she was "concerned" by reports of "peaceful protests" being "met with violence."

I didn't see anything from Carmen Llanes Pulido.

Meanwhile, Travis County GOP Chair Matt Mackowiak made this exceedingly bizarre comment, equating Israel with the "Jewish race."

Mackowiak, by the way, is a candidate, along with former nut job Council Member Don Zimmerman, for the Travis Central Appraisal District board. That election is May 4 –– early voting is going on right now.