June 11, 2020
by Gabriel Daveau, Coordinator of the Institut des Amériques Texas office (hosted by the University of Texas in Austin) and PhD student in American Litterature at the University of Lille (CECILLE).
When looking North from the South Congress bridge, the Texas Capitole and its dome dominate the landscape. Accentuated by the lights at night, the building breaks up the long views of downtown Austin's avenues, and imposes itself in the skyline as a symbol of division between local and federal powers, between the economy and the politics. It's in this building that the Texas legislature resides: a Republican majority-led assembly, right at the heart of the city, known for its liberal politics and an economy driven by new technologies .
The geographic placement of the Capitole is not only a sign of the polarizations that divide American society, but also the inequalities that continue to eat at it. Going all the way to the Capitole, Congress Avenue splits Austin's streets between East and Ouest. On the West side, the rich districts of historic Austin spread to the tree-lined hills of West Lake. On the other side, the mainly Hispanic and African-American East Austin spreads to Interstate Highway 183. It was unavoidable, this clear demarcation, adorned by the dome of the legislature, was the theater of demands arising from these inequalities, right to the steps of the Capitole. The significant insecurity in which a large portion of the American population is finding itself because of Covid-19 is exacerbating these differences and exposing the open wounds in a way that is as clearcut as the border symbolized by Congress Avenue.
On April 14, 2020, about one month after Austin's mayor told the population to stay home as much as possible and ordered that all schools, places of worship, bars, restaurants and concert halls be closed, protesters gathered in front of the Texan legislature. They were responding to the call sent from the conspiracy theory Infowars website to express their refusal to be on lockdown, and to demand that businesses reopen. Several similar protests took place thoughout the US, particularly in Michigan where armed protesters entered into the statehouse and attempted to reach the floor of the chamber in order to be heard. That day in Austin, the director of the website Alex Jones  made a speech on the steps of the Capitole, while protesters called for the firing of Dr. Fauci and also chanted "Made America Free Again", echoing the US president's campaign slogan. Later, the later posted "LIBERATE MICHIGAN" and "LIBERATE MINNESOTA" on his Twitter account in support of similar protests in other states.
Less than one month later, on May 31st, the Austin Justice Coalition group also called for a peaceful gathering in front of the Capitole, but this time in response to the death of George Floyd following his arrest by the Minneapolis police, as well as the death of Mike Ramos, an unarmed Austin resident during his arrest in April. The protest organizers were outraged at the police violence so often perpetrated against the same populations, that have become particularly vulnerable because of the health crisis. The group canceled their rally several hours before the gathering fearing arson and looting, but several thousand people still showed up in front of the symbol of Texan legislature. The protesters were disbanded at the end of the day with tear gas and rubber bullets. Several days later, on June 3rd, Donald Trump called for the police to take a harder line with the protesters.
These two emerging racial and political tensions, exacerbated by the coronavirus health crisis, does reveal a double political standard, a different treatment according to which side of the political, social and especially racial spectrum they are. On the one hand, a small political minority refuses to wear a mask and condemns the "lies" from the institutional discourse. On the other, protesters proclaim their outrage at the usual racism to which the racial minorities are victims to from the local authorities. The first ones arrive armed and leave without consequences, while the others are again subjected to a violent crackdowns during a protest that was meant to be peaceful.
During this pandemic in the US, there seems to be a fatal link between the respiratory distress caused by the virus that has already led to the death of 100 000 people and another distress, social and racial, symbolized by the slogan symptomatic of last week's protests: "I can't breathe". Whether it's buckling under the weight of the searing health crisis, or the bicentennial racial crisis, American minorities are suffocating. It is not surprising that during the tribute to George Floyd on June 4th, the lawyer of the deceased's family linked the two together by attributing his death to "that other pandemic that we only know too well in America, the pandemic of racism and discrimination" .
 Austin's mayor Steve Adler, as well as his 21st century predecessors, are all Democrats. At the same time, the giants in new technologies have mainly established the service sectors of their activity in Austin. It's true of Google and Facebook whose buildings are now a part of the downtown landscape.
 Founder of the Infowars website, Alex Jones is a well-known denialist and conspiracy theorist, condemned for publicly denying the Sandy Hook shooting that killed 27 people including 20 children in 2012.
 Benjamin Crump: "It was that other pandemic that we’re far too familiar with in America, that pandemic of racism and discrimination that killed George Floyd", cited in Chris McGreal, "Floyd family members speak at memorial service", The Guardian, consulted on-line, my translation.
Gabriel Daveau is the Coordinator of the Institut des Amériques Texas office (hosted by the University of Texas at Austin) and PhD student in American Litterature at the University of Lille (CECILLE).