Austin, It’s Time to Walk the Walk: Justice for Larry Jackson

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This Sunday evening in Austin, while 75,000 or so people are making their way to one of the two main stages at ACL for the final headliners’ shows, another group will be gathering in Givens Park on East 12th Street. This group cannot begin to compare in size to the one in Zilker Park, but living in the shadow of massive events that draw people, money and national attention to Austin has become standard operating procedure. Honestly, the traffic and the crowds and the general state of exhaustion that grips most of Central Austin by the last day of any big weekend probably won’t affect how the people gathering for the Justice for Jackson Community Walk get to Givens Park or when they get there. And given Austin’s general lack of awareness about Larry Jackson Jr.’s death, that disconnect comes as no surprise.

Larry Jackson Jr was killed in my neighborhood on Friday, July 26, 2013. He was unarmed. He was black. And he was killed by an Austin Police Department detective named Larry Kleinert.

Kleinert, who has since retired from APD, is currently facing manslaughter charges in federal court. In April, the case was moved from state to federal court on the basis of Kleinert’s assignment at the time of Jackson’s killing to an FBI task force investigating a robbery at Benchmark Bank on West 35th Street. Under federal law, Kleinert may be granted immunity from the charges because he was serving as a federal agent. A federal trial also means a dramatic shift in the jury pool, from one drawn from the relatively diverse population of Travis County to the far more white, more rural and older population of the U.S. District Court Western District of Texas in Austin, which includes Bastrop, Blanco, Burleson, Burnet, Caldwell, Gillespie, Hays, Kimble, Lampasas, Lee, Llano, Mason, McCulloch, San Saba, Travis, Washington and Williamson counties.

Last week, arguments were heard in U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel’s courtroom in a hearing concerning Kleinert’s immunity as a federal officer. If granted immunity, the case will be dismissed and there will be no further criminal proceeding unless the ruling is appealed. It’s an extremely critical point in the proceedings for anyone who supports justice for Larry Jackson, so demonstrating and growing community awareness and support is critical. That’s why there are walks scheduled for every other Sunday until the trial is scheduled to get underway on November 2.

One of the few bright spots I’ve been struck by in this case is the quality of reporting by The Austin American Stateman Courts reporter Jazmine Ulloa. Ulloa’s articles about the hearing are jarring and vivid, bringing the reader into what clearly was an unsettling and powerful three days of testimony. (This is the point in the post where I have to restate how much I cannot stand the paywall that separates readers from informative articles and commentary, not just at The Statesman but across the board. I’d link to the articles but you wouldn’t be able to access them unless you are a subscriber. I’m sorry for this omission.)

I’m also reading Statesman columnist Ken Herman’s commentary on the hearing. His writing is also vivid and compelling. However, I have trouble with Herman’s approach in several of his recent columns that places the focus on a dramatic recounting of the proceedings more in keeping with a courtroom drama than with the killing of an unarmed African American man by a police officer a year before Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson.

As an avowed close reader, one line Herman wrote last week bothered me particularly. In his October 1st column “A former Austin cop accused in killing has his day in court,” Herman wrote,

Most of you know the case.

It felt wrong when I read it last week and it still feels wrong today.

The reason it feels wrong is that, with that statement, Herman seems to feel free to omit the central facts of this killing: Larry Jackson was an unarmed African American man. That’s correct. Herman fails to mention either Jackson’s race or the fact that he was unarmed. Apparently, to his mind, most of us know the case, so there’s no need to mention it. Hmmm.

To be fair, Ken Herman is a columnist. As such, his writing is geared to a group that regularly reads his work. Also, this particular column was printed on page A8 of the paper edition; Herman’s right to think that the people reading this particular column, which most frequently appears on the front page of the State and Metro section, would be familiar with the case because they’re “his” readers. The people who read this story made an effort. They like reading Ken Herman. And maybe that’s because he tells them what they want to hear. And perhaps the paywall has the effect of making Herman less likely to consider the occasional or the infrequent reader who may find his writing through a Tweet or Facebook share. That may be another factor in why Herman feels comfortable–as do his editors–in omitting certain facts in the case so casually.

But, as most of you know, most of us do not know the case. Most people in Austin do not know the case. Most people in my neighborhood, where Larry Jackson was killed just down the street from Bryker Woods Elementary School, do not know the case. Ken Herman, one of the most influential journalists in Austin, knows that he’s speaking to a relatively small group in his columns. His readers, in turn, have a great influence on how this case is understood and what happens when Judge Yeakel makes his ruling about Kleinert’s immunity. If they’re not aware of and considering the racial and policing issues at the heart of this killing, they will not understand the community’s response. Instead of sowing increased understanding and awareness of the high stakes involved in this case for everyone committed to and working for justice, this omission takes this killing out of the context where it belongs: the disproportionate number of deaths of African Americans as the result of brutal and racist policing.

I genuinely rely on Ken Herman to understand what is happening in this case, and I’m not alone. It’s time to stop referring to the killing of an unarmed African American man in Austin as a “bad outcome” that was the result of “bad choices.” Both Larry Jackson and the people of Austin deserve better, more accurate words from the most senior and influential journalist covering this case.

The community walk on Sunday is being organized by The People’s Task Force, a community organization working to support the Jackson family as they continue to endure what can only be described as a nightmare and to raise awareness about the case, in partnership with Black Lives Matter Austin. At the last community walk on September 27th, the organizers asked each of us to bring someone with us. I’m going this Sunday. I hope you’ll come too.

Justice for Jackson Community Walk

Givens Park  3311 East 12th Street 6pm

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