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The Whole Star

Thursday, August 14, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.
Thursday, August 14, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.

Ours was a summer punctuated by upheaval. On Aug. 9, gunshots were heard in Ferguson, Missouri, when a white police officer fired multiple times at Michael Brown, a young, unarmed black man. The second horror immediately followed, quietly, when his corpse was left on the street, untouched and largely exposed to the heat for four-and-a-half hours, sending a wordless, but potent message to the community about the power the police and government exert over their lives, bodies and final dignity.

President Obama, along with other lawmakers and commentators who gauge the state of the nation, began calling for peace. The press carefully documented the nights of “peace” in Ferguson as if it were a barometer of the nation’s—or at least the town’s—progress.

But what powerful people are actually calling for is quiet. Peace and quiet, as anyone who has ever demanded it at home or the workplace knows, are not synonymous. Peace, with its potentially long-lasting effects, requires investment. Peace takes listening and reflection. Quiet can be achieved through suppression or closing our eyes and ears to the clear signals that all is not right with our communities and nation. In some instances, as in the act of displaying Brown’s corpse, violence expresses itself quietly.

Since Brown’s killing a month ago, I have turned over the distinction between peace and quiet in my mind, my thoughts returning to moments this summer that had upset my sense of peace. Quietly, I walked into any number of restaurants and businesses in Austin to find that the entire “front of house” consisted of white waiters, white clerks, while black and Latinos were relegated to the “back of the house.”

I wondered if some elaborate game of chance might explain a workforce consisting of young, white people in what is often described as Texas’ most liberal city. There is nothing peaceful in repeatedly witnessing—much less experiencing—no fewer than four patrol cars surround black motorists on the east side, the once redlined district where working-class blacks and Latinos were shunted in an urban planning design built on segregation. On each occasion handcuffs were in use. In one instance, I spotted, a few blocks away, a young male hipster comfortably laying down on the sidewalk chatting with an officer, as if they were friends, and equals.

Each incident contributes to a singular message about where the community and business leaders believe people of color belong. Such attitudes are made plain in real estate ads that describe a neighborhood “transitioning” or, more crudely, when I hear locals blithely describe an area becoming increasingly upscale and white as “getting cleaned up.”

Austin City Council candidate Ora Houston recently described the African-American experience in Austin bluntly. “The city of Austin is very racist,” she said at a candidate forum for District 1, the African-American “opportunity” district. Black people in Austin, she said, “don’t have a sense of place.”

In November, Austin voters will elect a new City Council, based on single-member districts, after decades of at-large representation. While local representation based, roughly, on communities of interest presents opportunities for historically marginalized groups, some worry that the new system will cost the city its international stature and downscale ambitions. Evidently, democracy and political empowerment are fine ideals, as a brand.

But where blacks and Latinos are not made to feel invisible, their presence is systematically, and mathematically, diminished. Consider the findings from a UT-Austin/Texas Tribune public opinion poll released over the summer that found, among other things, that Texans believe undocumented immigrants should be deported immediately.

But the portrait of Texas was drawn primarily from people 45 and older (57 percent of those surveyed), and from people with no children living at home (63 percent). According to the U.S. Census, the median age in Texas is 34 and we rank among the states with the most children at home. The sampling reflected the state’s black population but weighted toward whites by under-sampling Latinos by 10 percent. We are left to conclude that despite the state’s demographics, the poll reflects the opinions of older whites.

Each of these acts undermines the peacefulness of a community, a state and our nation. This isn’t simply my conclusion. In the summer of 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson formed what became known as the Kerner Commission to investigate the factors that had precipitated the eruption of riots across the nation.

The commission found that the police are not merely a “spark” factor. “To some Negroes,” according to the report, “police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression.”

Behind the confrontations with police, the commission discovered grievances with a systemic culture of racism manifested by: unemployment and underemployment, disrespectful white attitudes, inadequacy of municipal services, ineffectiveness of the political structure and grievance mechanisms. The commission concluded that whites were oblivious to the lived reality of segregation and poverty.

One recent Saturday afternoon, as I drove past Lady Bird Lake on the east side, I noticed four patrol cars in the park. Two officers were escorting a Latino man away, in handcuffs. Police turned up on the scene after receiving an urgent call from a resident of the nearby new condo development who claimed the homeless man had beaten a dog to death with his bare hands. But when the officers arrived, they found a very alive pit bull. The man had simply swatted the dog’s behind for misbehaving and, according to the police report, the caller later admitted to exaggerating the situation.

The show of force—four officers sticking around once it was clear the man wasn’t dangerous, but was wanted on an outstanding alcohol-related warrant—represents a common pattern of policing. Overlooked in the calls for calm and peace is that the police ultimately reflect and enforce the values and attitudes of the community they serve, the people eyeing cheap property in neighborhoods that need “cleaning up.” Such are the ongoing attacks on peace, ones replicated in many cities across Texas.

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Vivian Farinazzo

Is the state agency charged with guarding Texas’ abused kids trying to privatize services needlessly?

The Department of Family and Protective Services continues to push forward on a plan to bring on more private companies—despite evidence that its effort to overhaul the state’s foster care system is faltering. Many advocates think recent turmoil with Providence Services Corporation, the first contractor tapped by the state to oversee a portion of the foster care system, suggests the experiment is already a failure. The next stage in “foster care redesign,” as the state calls it, is set to take effect this month when another private company takes over a seven-county North Texas region including Fort Worth. Instead, critics argue the Legislature should invest more money in a state-run system and work out the issues without the involvement of private companies.

The need for reform in foster care is not in question. In the fiscal year spanning September 2012 to September 2013, 10 children died from abuse or neglect while under state care. In fiscal year 2014, three children died, including 6-year-old Jenetta Smith and her brother, 4-year-old Riley. Both children drowned in Lake Georgetown in July, under the care of a foster family monitored by Providence. Until August, when Providence abruptly pulled out of its five-year contract, the company was in charge of a rural 60-county region in West Texas that the state now must again oversee.

Foster care redesign was meant to eliminate the rise in child deaths and streamline foster care services provided by a multitude of sub-contractors. In 2011, the Texas Legislature passed a bill allowing DFPS to shift the administration of its more than 300 privately owned child placement agencies—responsible for recruiting and monitoring foster placements—to lead companies, like Providence. Each “lead” company manages a certain region of the state. The goal is to keep children closer to their siblings and home communities, and avoid bouncing them from one home to the next.

In June, the Texas Sunset Commission, which looks into the efficacy of state agencies, released an excoriating report on DFPS. The report noted that foster care redesign is a “risky endeavor” that has no long-term comprehensive plan. Redesign “presents inherent challenges and risks to DFPS and to the state,” the report warned. “If a contractor fails or pulls out of the contract, DFPS is then faced with the difficult task of assuming the contractor’s responsibilities temporarily while the agency procures a new contract.”

That’s exactly what happened with Providence. In August, the company ended its contract with the state, citing a lack of services in its assigned region, such as residential treatment centers and adequate transportation for children. Providence also had IT system issues and was $2 million over budget.

The state has reclaimed responsibility for keeping track of the 1,100 foster children already in the system as well as any incoming children removed from homes due to abuse and neglect. The department intends to continue providing some of the services Providence was implementing in its redesign effort, but has no plans yet to tap another contractor to take over the region. But if the state can handle what it hired a private agency to do in the first place, what’s the point of moving forward with privatization?

Ashley Harris from child welfare non-profit Texans Care for Children says the state may be able to continue running Providence’s programs effectively.

“If the Legislature gives DFPS the funding it needs, I think the agency can meet those goals without spending extra money to go through the middleman contractor,” Harris said. “Certainly it would have been easier if they had done it in the first place rather than coming in to pick up the pieces after Providence pulled out. If they are successful, it would be another reason not to go back to the redesign approach.”

But Family and Protective Services Commissioner John Specia continues to push privatization as the only solution to fixing the system.

In a recent video to DFPS employees following Providence’s contract termination, Specia struck a reassuring tone:

“We’re going to continue because foster care redesign is an essential process for this department. We must improve the way we deliver foster care services and we’re doing that through rolling out foster care redesign,” he said. “We’re going to have steps and missteps but we’re going to keep going forward to improve the system for our children and families.”

The second company to take up foster care reform, the non-profit Our Community Our Kids, began accepting new children who need placement into homes on Sept. 1.

Wayne Carson, CEO of the Our Community Our Kids parent organization ACH Child and Family Services, said his team has learned from Providence’s mistakes. One of the most important lessons, Carson said, was the power of a good IT infrastructure, which helps keep track of key information on foster children in the region. Providence had issues with IT system accessibility early on and had to manually enter each child’s information as it obtained it from each child-placing agency.

“You need good information to make good decisions about children, to be able to follow children to make sure they’re getting the kind of care they deserve and to know where your foster homes are so you can place children in their neighborhoods,” Carson said.

One issue, which Providence also faced, continues: the state’s refusal to spend more money for more services. Carson said Our Community Our Kids knew it would have to invest extra money from the beginning. The 2011 legislation mandated that lead agencies work with the same level of funding that the state had used to run the old system in each region, despite the mandate for more services. The state budgeted a one-time amount of $208,000 for startup costs, but Our community Our Kids had to front between $800,000 and $1 million more.

But Carson is confident Our Community Our Kids has enough experience and rapport with the community to make privatization work.

“Foster care redesign is a way to help coordinate the system of care,” Carson said. “We’ve been able to create better access to services that already existed for children that, because the system was so fragmented and there was no cohesion among providers, it was difficult to make that happen.”

Diana Martinez with TexProtects, another non-profit geared toward helping Texas children, said meeting the goals set forward by redesign is a necessary part to keeping children safe, no matter who’s in charge of it.

“Something definitely needs to change,” Martinez said. “If it’s through private providers that’s great, if it’s the state being able to put more money into foster care so that we can build up those types of resources that we need, that’s great too.”

Texas Rangers pose on a South Texas ranch in 1915 after one of their notorious "bandit raids."
The Robert Runyon Photograph Collection, image 00097, courtesy of The Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin
Texas Rangers pose on a South Texas ranch in 1915 after one of their notorious "bandit raids."

 
The far ends of our colorful political spectrum rarely cause me much worry. I trust the armed militias reportedly roaming the U.S.-Mexico border and the convoy of flag-waving protesters from Murrieta, California that traveled to the Rio Grande Valley will keep their rightful place on the fringe of our political conversation. It’s the center that I watch closely. That’s the contentious territory where ideas and notions from dark chapters in Texas history often reappear, redefining our sense of normalcy and decency.

The migration of extreme notions into the mainstream was recently laid bare in a Newsweek cover story that described ranchers who are “hunting humans” as simply “dealing first-hand with the problems caused by the influx of undocumented immigrants.” The piece, “Hunting Humans: The Americans Taking Immigration Into Their Own Hands” was reported from Brooks County some 70 miles north of the border in South Texas, and quotes three ranchers—Michael and Linda Vickers and another who went only by “B.J.” Not apparently comfortable enough to use her full name, B.J. refers to migrants as if they were prey.

“It’s a cat-and-mouse game,” says B.J. with a grin, driving through ranch trails. Her Heckler & Koch P2000 pistol rests in the cup holder next to her right knee. She starts by looking for footprints—they are most noticeable on the sand tracks she has set up next to the trails that she smooths by dragging tires. When she sees a fresh set, she speeds through the trails, finds the migrants, chases after them until they tire out, corners them and then yells, “Pa’bajo!”—Spanish for down.

Seven years ago The Texas Observer reported, “like some other ranchers, [Michael] Vickers has installed a faucet near a windmill and painted it blue to make it easier for trespassers to find and drink from easily.”

That humanitarian provision, later described in the Newsweek article, is nonetheless part of an attitude that equates people with animals: “In any case, says Vickers, the windmills provide a water source which is safe for cattle, and therefore for migrants.”

Last year, U.S. News and World Report described Vickers’ group as “simply back-up for U.S. Border Patrol. The goal of the volunteers is not to engage with the ‘criminal trespassers,’ as they call them, but alert border patrol of their findings.” One year later, the ranchers are described as hunting migrants while laying out traps and chasing them down. Maybe these ranchers viewed the migrants not simply as trespassers but as prey all along and now they feel free to express such opinions. It’s difficult to know. But reporters who had interviewed the Vickers before told me they were alarmed at what they described as a sharp shift in rhetoric.

The press becomes complicit in ushering extreme ideas into the center when “hunting humans” is treated as acceptable behavior and counterbalanced with images of ranchers installing life-saving water barrels for migrants. It is a false balance.

Nearly 90 percent of the population in Brooks County is Latino, with five percent foreign born. Many ranches predate the U.S.-Mexico War. And when I read those quotes I’m reminded of the image of a group of Texas Rangers mounted on horseback, the ends of their rope tied around the ankles of three ‘Mexican bandits’ laying face down on the ground. Prized game. The image, captured near Brooks County a little over a century ago, was sold as a postcard and distributed widely.

Back then, the justification for hunting Mexicans was banditry and rebellion but, as history has shown, then as now, the concept of border security was woven from the dark thread of race. The Vickers were once associated with the Minutemen, the militia group described by former President George W. Bush as “vigilantes.” The Southern Poverty Law Center lists the Minutemen and the Vickers’ ‘border volunteer’ outfit as a nativist extremist group.

From the media to the political arena the racially tinged side of “security” and normalized violence has found its way into the center. On July 5, just over two weeks before the Newsweek story was published, Bud Kennedy at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that a Facebook page created for GOP convention delegates included statements such as:“Americans are not breeding while ‘the bronze master races is’… We will die out and they will win.” Kennedy told me some readers complained that he had overstated the importance of Facebook comments. But the page belonged to a faction of the Texas Republican Party that had been instrumental in shaping the state GOP platform. “What I’m concerned about is a Republican Party that has become infiltrated by John Birchers and white nationalists,” he said.

Brooks County Deputy Chief "Benny" Martinez
Jen Reel
Brooks County Deputy Chief “Benny” Martinez

Gov. Rick Perry cruises the Rio Grande with Sean Hannity, posing together on gunboats. The Dallas Morning News reported U.S. Rep Sam Johnson (R-TX) provoked laughter at a groundbreaking event for defense contractor Raytheon Co. when he said: “I don’t know how people cross that river. Maybe Raytheon can figure out a new silent gun.” He then cocked his finger like a pistol. Johnson later apologized.

Lost in the headline-grabbing displays of “border security” is a discussion of whether the border  enforcers are in fact breaking the law. I reached Brooks County Deputy Chief Urbino “Benny” Martinez by telephone and read him a Newsweek tweet about the story: For a few ranchers, setting traps for migrants, chasing after them and being intimidating is a hobby.

“That shouldn’t happen, I’ll make that very clear to you right now. That’s the first time I’ve heard that,” he said, distressed. Martinez added that he intended to investigate what is happening on the ranches. “This is not a show, this is not a reality show, this is for real.”

Martinez’s reaction should offer some relief for it shows that, at least for some leaders, border security radicalism has yet to overwhelm our good sense and humanity.

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Fracking equipment near homes in Denton.
Fracking equipment near homes in Denton.

Energy companies have been injecting diesel underground during fracking operations—without permits to do so—in a dozen states including Texas, according to a new report from the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project. The report, released Wednesday, found that between February 2010 and July 2014, nearly 13,000 gallons of diesel were injected underground in Texas alone. During that period, the study found that 33 companies injected diesel into 351 wells across the U.S.—but because the study relies on self-reported data in the chemical disclosure registry FracFocus, the actual total could be much higher.

The Environmental Protection Agency once had the power to regulate fracking fluids injected into the ground. But in 2005 Congress stripped the agency of nearly all of that authority, in what came to be known as the Halliburton Loophole—only diesel injection remained under EPA’s permitting authority. Diesel contains various known carcinogens, including benzene, that easily seep into groundwater, where they can threaten drinking supplies.

“[The EPA] may not be able to make the majority of wells safer, but they can do it with diesel and they should,” says the report’s author, former EPA enforcement attorney Mary Greene. “It’s not clear to me why they’re not.”

The report casts doubt on repeated assurances from industry players that diesel hasn’t been used in fracking in many years, at a time when the media and academics are challenging other industry talking points. For example, oil and gas companies have insisted that their operations don’t threaten water supplies. But last month, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection said that oil and gas activity had, in fact, damaged water supplies in the state at least 209 times since the end of 2007. Pennsylvania is among the states with the most fracking activity in the country.

In January the Associated Press investigated oil and gas-related contamination complaints in four states including Texas. It found confirmed cases of water contamination in three states, including Pennsylvania, but none in Texas. At the time, Texas Railroad Commission spokeswoman Ramona Nye told the AP the agency hadn’t confirmed any cases of drilling-related contamination in the past decade. The regulatory agency reiterated that point yesterday in response to the new report. Greene, the report’s author, says her review only looked at diesel use, not the possibility of water contamination.

Of the 351 wells mentioned in the report, only 27 are in Texas, but the highest volume of diesel was injected here. The Environmental Integrity Project confirmed that at least 12,808 gallons of diesel were injected in Texas, mostly in counties sitting atop the Eagle Ford Shale.

Because companies control what they submit to FracFocus, and can claim any fracking fluid is a “trade secret” exempt from disclosure, Greene believes the use of diesel is much more common. Her review also found that many operators, after initially reporting diesel use to FracFocus, removed it from their disclosure list after the EPA reaffirmed its ban on diesel; companies can alter their disclosures at any time without noting the change.

Hours after the report was released, the industry news outlet Energy in Depth posted an article calling the research flawed and claiming, among other things, that energy companies removed diesel from their disclosures because of errors in their original submissions. The article mentions one company that said it had listed diesel due to a typo. The article also notes the number of wells cited in the report is a small fraction of the gas wells in the country.

“It only takes a small amount of benzene and some of these other chemicals that are in diesel to contaminate a whole lot of groundwater,” Greene says in response. “And it only takes a very small amount of these chemicals to cause significant health damage in people including increased risk of cancer. You take that coupled with the fact that the wells I uncovered in this report are not the entire universe of wells fracked with diesel out there … this is only the tip of the iceberg.”

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