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
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