As Texas Republicans center campaigns on city crime, anti-police brutality activists say the party's messaging is racist

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In recent Republican campaign ads for Texas races up and down the ballot, scenes depict urban anarchy, presumably at the hands of people protesting police brutality. American flags burn. Demonstrators smash police cars. Children cry.

In many ads, it’s hard to tell where the scenes are happening. Some show looting and fires — incidents that were rare in Texas this year as protesters flooded city streets to demonstrate against racism in policing.

Democrats, according to one Texas ad, are “threatening commerce, jobs and life.”

As the coronavirus pandemic resurges and its accompanying economic downturn persists, Republicans from President Donald Trump to Texas county judges are instead centering campaign messages on destruction during anti-police brutality protests and calls to cut police funding.

But rather than address the instances of police officers’ use of force that spurred those demonstrations, the GOP is often broadly painting the protesters as destructive, violent people. Yet the Texas protests were mostly peaceful, especially in recent months. And although there were instances of violence here, there were also incidents in which police officers escalated tensions and injured protesters with their use of force.

“This is a distraction,” said Durrel Douglas, a co-founder of the Houston Justice Coalition. “It appears whenever there is traction being made — the powers that be figure out a way to grab and take hold of the narrative. It’s a dog whistle.”

The GOP’s attempts to center Tuesday’s election on a narrative that there is massive unrest in cities come as Trump is underperforming previous Republican presidential nominees in Texas, Democrats appear to strengthen their hold on the state’s urban areas and the GOP’s dominance in politics here is at risk.

And in Texas, Republican voters are more likely to have favorable views of the police than Democratic voters, according to a University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott isn’t on the ballot, but he has tried to make this election about law and order, including at a campaign press conference Thursday again calling on candidates statewide to pledge not to defund the police. Like many state and national Republicans, Abbott portrays Democrats as enablers of criminals and cities as hotbeds of violence and destruction.

In four of Texas’ five most populous cities, the number of violent crimes — robbery, aggravated assault, rape and homicide — have ticked up this year compared with last year. But overall crime numbers are down in each of the five, and property crimes are down in four. Sarah Labowitz, the policy and advocacy director of American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, notes that the state’s crime rates are at 30-year lows, while police budgets have soared during that time and Texas officers have shot and killed an average of 101 people each year since 2015.

“Recasting this as a crime problem is disingenuous and shows that Gov. Abbott is out of touch,” Labowitz said.

A lot of campaign rhetoric belies the nuance of where candidates and officials from both parties stand and what their records suggest. For instance, Texas Democrats up and down the ticket have not openly embraced the “defund the police” movement — a moniker that means different things to different people — which Republicans warn will spur lawlessness.

“No Democrats have said that they support that,” said Abhi Rahman, a Texas Democratic Party spokesperson. “In Texas it’s pretty clear that that’s not what Democrats are supporting. Everybody sees through what they’re trying to do.”

And while GOP campaigns try to incite fear of protesters, the leader of the Republican party — Trump himself — stoked fears of violence after the first presidential debate, when he was asked to condemn white spremacists but instead told the far-right group Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”

For Douglas, the party’s messaging on this issue, from Trump down, is racist.

“We’re screaming at the top of our lungs that we want accountability,” Douglas said. “Look at the dog whistles that are being blown, and basically what they’re saying is, ‘Reelect us because we’re going to keep the Black and brown people in control.”

Luke Twombly, a spokesperson for the Republican Party of Texas, disagreed and repeated party claims that Democrats are to blame for violence in cities.

“There is nothing racist in supporting law and order,” Twombly said in a statement to the Texas Tribune.

Texas crime statistics

After George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in May, hundreds of thousands of protesters flooded the streets across America and Texas, demanding reforms to how officers interact with — and use force against — people of color.

In 2018, about a third of Texas prisoners were Black, a third were white and a third were Hispanic, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. That same year, about 12% of Texas’ population was Black, about 42% was white and 40% was Hispanic, according to the Texas Demographic Center.

“To say there’s no systemic racism in the criminal legal system is simply to ignore the data,” said Chris Harris, the Criminal Justice Project director for advocacy group Texas Appleseed. “It’s impossible.”

Defunding efforts largely aim to redirect some city money away from police departments and instead put it toward things like housing assistance and mental health services that can combat the root causes of many crimes.

Not all supporters of police budget cuts want law enforcement agencies to lose all of their money and be disbanded.

“As someone who grew up in South Park, I can tell you one can fight for police accountability and understand the need for police to exist to maintain public safety,” said Douglas, the Houston Justice Coalition co-founder.

And not all responses to police brutality are aimed at law enforcement budgets. The Texas Legislative Black Caucus has put forth the George Floyd Act, a sweeping police reform proposal that would ban chokeholds across the state and require law enforcement officers to intervene or render aid if another officer is using excessive force while on the job. Abbott, though, has pushed legislative proposals focused on increasing punishments for offenses committed at protests.

While some people point to protests against police brutality and calls for defunding efforts as a reason for continued increases in violent crime, the data does not support those arguments.

In Austin, for example, violent crime was already rising before the protests that followed Floyd’s death. In Houston, the two peaks of the year in violent crime came before the protests began, after which violent crime declined sharply, according to data compiled by the Tribune and City Crime Stats, which tracks crime in the country’s 25 largest cities.

While there is a clear consensus for how economic conditions affect property crime, there is no consensus on violent crime, said Kevin Schnepel, an economics professor at Simon Fraser University who studies the relationship between the economy and crime. The fact that 2020 is, by every measure, an unprecedented year only complicates attempts to figure out what’s driving increases in crime.

“With violent crime, it's a very mixed bag. There's no common sense that a 1% increase in unemployment rate is associated with any change in violent crime,” Schnepel said.

Far removed from city life

People’s attitudes about crime and policing grow organically, said Daron Shaw, a UT-Austin government professor and co-director of the UT/TT Poll. These perceptions are influenced by real-life events, which can include community conversations on Facebook or neighborhood websites and what people see in ads or on the nightly news, such as looting and property damage that erupted in some U.S. cities earlier this year.

“Political campaigns are trying to fill in the gap that people have as they have fewer events they can witness firsthand during the pandemic,” Shaw said. “They are trying to provide people with the framework of how to be comforted.”

That can work especially well in rural and suburban areas, which are more removed from city life, Shaw said. This distance also allows the media, which often sensationalizes images of buildings on fire and shattered windows, to play a large role in shaping these perceptions, Shaw said.

Cattle farmer Matthew Heines stopped delivering the milk and meat — beef, lamb, chicken, pork — from his Flatonia farm to Austin in August. He’d heard officials in the state’s capital city were cutting their police department budget and feared it was unsafe to enter the city limits.

“If a community’s elected representatives are OK with those changes, that is not the kind of neighborhood I want to be in,” said 42-year-old Heines, whose farm is roughly halfway between San Antonio and Houston.

This summer, local Black Lives Matter protesters marched in heavily Republican Falls County outside Waco. It concerned County Judge Jay Elliott, who worried some out-of-towners would crash the demonstration and bring violence — even though Dallas and Austin are each roughly 100 miles away and protests in Texas cities were largely peaceful.

Elliott was relieved that the local demonstration was also nonviolent. When he watched the protests in cities like Austin on television, they didn’t seem peaceful to him.

“When I see it on TV, I go, ‘Why aren’t they being arrested?“ Elliott said.

Douglas, watching similar protests on the news, saw it differently.

“If you look at the TV screen and see people in certain communities that are so enraged, that they demonstrate that and you don't get it,” Douglas said, “there's probably something wrong with you.”

Positions aren't so cut-and-dry

Republicans in some battleground Texas House races, where candidates will likely need support from moderate and independent voters, are explicitly voicing which police reforms they support.

Austin police officer Justin Berry, running for a Texas House seat against Democratic state Rep. Vikki Goodwin, calls for "deescalation training and body cameras for all officers” in a TV ad. Jacey Jetton, the Republican nominee for an open House seat based in Fort Bend County, echoes that in a commercial and advocates for “ensuring our police look more like the communities they serve.”

Republican firebrand Ted Cruz, the junior U.S. senator from Texas, seemingly supported seeking justice against violent law enforcement officers while also opposing police budget cuts.

“We need to come together, prosecute police officers who commit crimes and stop the violence,” Cruz said in a statement to the Tribune. “Defunding police departments is not how you do that.”

Yet in that same statement, Cruz, who won reelection two years ago in a closer-than-expected race with former Democratic U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, claimed that Democrats “largely refused” to condemn protesters who “tried to destroy cities and endangered law enforcement officers.”

But Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has often been quick to respond to questions about protests or police violence by condemning violent and destructive riots. The former vice president has also faced criticism throughout his campaign for his role in crafting tough-on-crime legislation many Democratic voters view as an engine of mass incarceration fueled by racist policing laws.

Biden was one of the lead authors of the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act, commonly known as the 1994 crime bill. The legislation expanded the death penalty, introduced controversial three-strikes laws and funded construction of federal prisons. Many Democratic voters view complicity with its passage as a sort of political mortal sin.

Geographical, racial divides persist

Heines, talking on the phone as he drove around his ranch, made it clear that his views don’t necessarily fall into the pigeonholes that politicians have tried to create. In his mind, the police are too militarized and need more training.

Still, he thinks cities like Austin are headed toward chaos. He doesn’t plan on restarting delivery there anytime soon.

“I’m glad I live in the countryside,” he said.

Advocates, though, are frustrated by the political rhetoric.

Harris said misinformation is being spread to dissuade support for criminal justice reform. He remains hopeful that the issues demonstrators raised in the criminal justice system will be addressed in the next legislative session.

But Douglas, a 34-year-old Black man, said reforms need to address the underlying systemic racism.

“The battered woman who’s being beaten by her husband does not want Valentine’s chocolates,” he said. “That’s not the point. Stop beating her. And stop killing us. That’s the point.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin, Texas Appleseed and Facebook have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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