Thursday
Jul262012

Letter from two patrons after seeing All My Sons

Hello there

My husband and I were visiting Austin last week and by chance stumbled upon All My Sons at the Salvage Vanguard Theater. We are both actors who are working in LA, who are members of our theater company/school Playhouse West for nearly a decade and at which my husband teaches. We are film makers and along with acting in theater all the time we also direct theater. I say all this because I want to stress how very much we are enmeshed in the world of acting out here in LA. 

Because, when we were driving away from the theater after seeing All My Sons last week, we both enthusiastically agreed that it was one of the best pieces of theater we've ever seen-ever. New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco-anywhere ever.  

I myself was so moved by the courage and focus and clarity of the actors and the wonderful and imaginative direction that seemed to sync the cast into one another, telling the same story and giving that story so much color and light. All My Sons is a work of extraordinary and beautiful writing and your play served that writing and made it rich and lovely and it touched me very deeply. It can be very moving as an actor to go to the theater, especially when the play is All My Sons, and I thank you so much for offering me the height of that experience. Because my life was bettered for it. And that is so rare, so very rare a thing. 

If you can, please pass this message on to the actors and director and crew. It's often a thankless job doing theater. Sometimes the only satisfaction is the joy of getting to act, to create. But, I want them each to know that I applaud their work and am so thankful for it. Whatever you did, keep doing it. The world needs it. It's worthwhile. When I left the theater I had a resounding feeling in my heart that said, That is Success. 

I hope this message finds you well. 

All our Love

Tuesday
Jun122012

On the adoption of “Preservation of Life Standard” as the beginning of redefining a relationship, not the ultimate definition

I was deeply surprised, and equally moved and elated, when I read that the Austin Police Department had at long last decided to replace the “Reasonable Officer Standard” with the “Preservation of Life Standard” in their justification of lethal force code.

Less than three months prior to the announcement, APD’s stance was reported to be staunchly different. Multiple Austin organizations, including the Austin Center for Peace and Justice and, most notably, the East Austin Coalition, had been calling for an adoption of “Preservation of Life,” at least since 2010, and in all cases, were met by the same reported response from APD: that current policy did in fact focus on preserving life, and therefore, did not need to be revised.

I came across this well reported call for policy change amid Austin’s history of minority shootings by police officers while researching for a newspaper my theatre company would later circulate in correlation with the production of a play I had updated to address the tumultuous relationship between the Austin police force and our civilian population. In fact, this oft-repeated phrase to policy change was still the response some two months ago when the most recent killing, Ahmede Jabbar Bradley, exploded on the front page the same day Officer Jamie Padron was gunned down during a routine apprehension in a North Austin Walmart.

So the deep surprise that I’m referring to, that after only a month’s run of our play, wherein we were having our patrons sign a pledge to revise this policy, that it was merely two days after we closed our show that this policy was actually, suddenly, finally being revised. (Which was something of a miraculous coincidence for my company, and the fruit of many other peoples’ much harder work; I can’t in full confidence say our newspaper or our play had any substantial impact in this deeply important decision; most likely, the train coming down the tracks reached my ears just as it was about to pull into the station).

            While I am overwhelmed that it happened, I cannot say what made APD reverse their position. My elation hopes that it is because they’ve battled their way out from underneath an entrenched tradition of prejudice common in most combat fraternities, which says there is a line dividing just and unjust, and the police must unequivocally and with overwhelming benefit-of-doubt be on the former side of that line.

This prejudice is symbolically questioned and contradicted in “Preservation of Life,” which is why it is so important that it has been adopted- as policy, it is foundationally different ideologically. And that ideology, when respected as sacrosanct, predicates an inherent egalitarian alleviation of suspicion and fear—it allows us to begin viewing each other as the same, or at the very least, with deep obligation to one another.

I was repeatedly struck, during conversations I had with East Austinites both after my show and while handing out newspapers in their neighborhoods, by the astonishing number of citizens who legitimately believed APD was out to kill young black men, or that APD actively set out to make life harder for poor Austinites residing in certain areas of our city; there was a palpable, fundamental mistrust, and in some cases, loathing of our police force.

Earnest suspicion and justified fear is the real problem that needs addressing in Austin, on both sides of the badge (especially when you consider the high percentage of officers who said they shot out of fear for their partner’s life), and the “Reasonable Officer Standard” was only a symptom of the holistic issue; therefore, adoption of “Preservation of Life” is only an act of treating that symptom.

I don’t write that to be dismissive of the astounding courage it took APD and Chief Acevedo to adopt the standard—I’m deeply proud that they serve me when they respond so progressively to community outcry (albeit belatedly). “Preservation of Life” is the starting point in beginning to redefine the potentially positive relationship between APD and East Austin; though, because it is only a symptom of the tangible issue, it is not the entire definition.

             Along with the adoption of “Preservation of Life,” I believe it is necessary for APD to reimagine the manner in which they make their presence felt in East Austin and similarly underserved areas—putting more beat cops in the neighborhoods and having the officers cultivate one-to-one relationships with civilians would go a long way in putting a tangible, benevolent face to the force.

The announcement of adoption of “Preservation of Life” could ripple much further across underserved communities if it were delivered the way those communities communicate amongst themselves: by hand, face to face from officers as a real statement and commitment to East Austin. Perhaps this may even be an opportunity for APD to energize a program that hopes to do more in recruiting civilians from Austin’s most underserved communities, so that those communities could immediately identify themselves as being the same as officers.

            Whatever the further tact, adoption of “Preservation of Life” must be the beginning and not the long-awaited answer to all we’re willing to hope for from APD. I believe Art Acevedo understands that, and I hope we will see him take further steps to insure it.

 

 

-Nigel O’Hearn

Artistic Director, Palindrome Theatre

Thursday
Apr192012

News article - Lawmakers livid over reports of coercion, extortion at Giddings youth lockup

by Mike Ward

Originally posted in the Austin American-Statesman

Two legislative architects of Texas' sweeping reforms in juvenile justice after a sex-abuse scandal five years are fuming over a new report that questions security and safety at the Giddings State School.

The report includes allegations that youths are being "bought and owned" by other youths for cigarettes, illicit drugs and money at the lockup about 50 miles east of Austin.

The nine-page investigative report by Ombudsman Debbie Unruh that legislative leaders received on Tuesday lists an array of other issues: Youth ringleaders are "controlling the culture on this campus," staff have a lack of control over youths, youths have refused to leave security detention for fear of their safety, and bullying and extortion of food are common.

In the report, agency officials said they have identified five ringleaders, including one youth who was caught on a security camera stealing food from another youth. Random drug tests and dorm searches have been initiated to curb contraband trafficking, the report states.

Though officials with the Texas Juvenile Justice Department say they are actively addressing the serious issues raised in the report, Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire and House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden said stronger, more immediate action is warranted.

"This situation is totally unacceptable and unbelievable, after everything we've been through with this agency," Whitmire said. "Youths are obviously in danger there, when you have a state report saying they are being bought and owned, bullied, are afraid — at an agency that was supposed to have been cleaned up, that has gotten tens of millions of dollars in the past few years so things like this won't happen."

Madden echoed that sentiment. "It doesn't appear we're controlling the youth there, that we're allowing the victimization of youth. That has to be stopped immediately."

He and Whitmire were among the key authors of sweeping reform legislation that overhauled youth corrections programs in Texas starting in 2007.

The Juvenile Justice Department is the months-old agency that replaced the Juvenile Probation Commission and the scandal-plagued Texas Youth Commission that operated Giddings. The former director of the Youth Commission, Cherie Townsend, now heads the department.

Jim Hurley, a spokesman for the department, noted that the issue of youths being "bought and sold" at Giddings was never reported previously to authorities. He said the agency has a "zero-tolerance policy" for abuse of incarcerated youths and that leaders are confident that Giddings residents are "safe and secure."

Even so, Whitmire said he plans to convene a public hearing of his committee in May to demand answers.

Five years ago a sex-abuse scandal and cover-up at the former Texas Youth Commission sparked sweeping reforms that remade Texas' juvenile corrections system.

The reforms included cutting by two-thirds the number of youths incarcerated in state-run lockups, shifting from a system of remote lockups to community-based rehabilitation programs closer to home, an independent ombudsman to monitor conditions, and the closure of six state lockups.

"If the people who are running this agency can't stop this, then we need to get some people in there who can," Whitmire said. "We closed several other units where things like this were going on ... and if we can't fix Giddings, then we should board it up."

Release of the report comes as the latest in a series of reported problems at the lockup — from last September, when a youth offender stabbed a female correctional officer, to management issues that have kept top Austin officials at Giddings for months to a recent survey of more than 100 youths at Giddings by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition who reported their highest concern was being assaulted by other youths.

Hurley did not specify the management issues that had been the focus of recent attention at Giddings.

The Giddings lockup is the largest of the agency's six remaining juvenile prisons and holds some of the toughest offenders. Seven other lockups were shuttered by the Legislature after the sex-abuse scandal brought a shift to community-based rehabilitation programs.

Hurley said the agency has been making progress in correcting the issues detailed in the report. Superintendent Stan DeGerolami retired in March and has been replaced by Alan Michel, previously the agency's director of community residential programs, Hurley said.

Tuesday
Apr172012

News article - Austin police apologize for shooting homeowner's dog named Cisco

by Marshall Jones

Originally published on The Digital Texan; audio, video, and photos also available at that link

The Austin Police Department is battling what appears to be worldwide outrage after an officer shot and killed a dog in a botched dispatch call. And the outrage is not likely to be tamped down after the release of video and audio of the shooting from the officer’s squad car.

APD held a press conference Monday to try and explain how the officer, who was dispatched to a domestic disturbance call Saturday in East Austin, ended up shooting a dog named Cisco owned by Michael Paxton.

Over 20,000 people have joined a Facebook page called “Justice for Cisco” in 24-hours. And the page’s followers have been heard loud and clear at Austin Police Department headquarters where they have been fielding what they say are “angry” phone calls all day long.

The shooting happened Saturday afternoon. Paxton was with playing with his dog, Cisco, in his East Austin backyard. He walked out to his driveway to get something out of his truck and was met by Austin Police Officer Thomas Griffin, who had his gun drawn and pointed at him. Griffin was responding to a report of domestic violence. The only problem is that he was at the wrong address and was pointing his pistol at the wrong man.

“Show me your hands, show me your hands, get the dog,” Griffin shouted all in the matter of mere seconds before firing his gun at Cisco and killing him on the spot.

A bewildered Paxton is heard on the recording asking the officer why he shot his dog. Some time later Officer Griffin realized that he was at the wrong address. The officer begins blaming Paxton for not having his dog on a leash in his own yard and that “his supervisor would explain it to him.”

The whole series of events was touched off by a 911 call made by a woman who said she witnessed a man and woman arguing. She reported that the altercation was at 2613 East 5th Street, which turned out to be the wrong address. That’s Paxton’s address. The couple involved in the dispute were next door.

The 911 caller reported that Paxton’s neighbors, Jesus Rivas and Maria Hernandez, were yelling at each other and that “(Rivas’) hands were around her shoulder blade and her throat, holding her there as he’s yelling at her and she’s trying to get away.”

The couple later told The Digital Texan that they had been fighting and that they were the ones that Officer Griffin was looking for, but that the fight was not what was reported to 911.

APD apologized to the news media at a Monday afternoon press conference, but they also backed the officer’s actions in killing Cisco.

“(Officer Griffin) advised (Paxton) to show him his hands; he ordered twice. As soon as he said that, a dog came charging him very quickly and aggressively,”  APD Sgt. Dave Daniels.

Daniels said Griffin’s gun was drawn at “low ready position” when he approached the house, adding that “an officer has a right to use any force necessary when an animal is being aggressive.”

The video does not back up Daniels’ description of Griffin’s gun in the “low ready position” because everything took place out of the camera’s view. Paxton says Griffin’s gun was pointed directly at his chest.

“I was terrified and I was afraid for my life. I thought he was going to shoot me,” said Paxton.

“It’s unfortunate that the actual shooting killed the gentleman’s dog,” Daniels told reporters Monday afternoon. “APD is extremely sorry that the dog owner lost his dog over this incident. It’s an unfortunate situation, but the officer was basically in retreat and he fired his weapon in self-defense.”

Thomas Griffin has been an APD officer for over two years. Daniels said Griffin is “upset” about the incident.

“(Officer Griffin’s supervisor) was at the scene, and she did apologize to the dog owner,” Daniels said.

Paxton says that isn’t true and that no apology was made to him. He also says Officer Griffin told his supervisor that Cisco jumped up to attack him, which Paxton says is also untrue. Paxton questions why APD chose to apologize to the news media in a press conference and not to him directly.

“I don’t expect this guy to lose his job,” Paxton said. “But something should be done about dealing with these kinds of situations. A dog’s going to bark to protect his owner, but that doesn’t mean you require deadly force.”

“I don’t have kids or much family. This dog was my child. He was intelligent, he was loyal, and he was well-behaved. He didn’t deserve what he got.”

Tuesday
Apr172012

News article - Community meeting over Carter shooting yields testy exchanges

by Patrick George

Originally published in the Austin American-Statesman

As a Travis County grand jury continues to evaluate the actions of an Austin police officer involved in a May fatal shooting, some Austin residents expressed dismay to prosecutors and local activists over how the district attorney's office has handled similar incidents.

About 100 people packed the George Washington Carver Museum & Cultural Center in East Austin on Monday to discuss the shooting death of Byron Carter Jr. The 20-year-old was fatally shot by officer Nathan Wagner in May. The grand jury is expected to decide in the coming weeks whether Wagner will face criminal charges.

Some attendees — many of whom, like Carter, are African American — complained that officers are rarely indicted in fatal shootings in which minorities are often the victims. An officer last was indicted on charges related to a shooting in 2003, but he was later found not guilty. Several shootings have happened since then, but none has resulted in indictments.

"When you have so many shootings in this city, and we're not getting the results we want, something has to change," said Anthony Walker of the New Black Panther Party.

District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg expressed her sympathy to Carter's family members, who were in attendance but criticized a handout that blamed her office for not holding police accountable by failing to indict them.

"I do not dictate to a grand jury what decision they are to make," she said. "I am tired of being accused of not being fair when I am fair."

Her opponent in the Democratic primary, former Judge Charlie Baird, attended the forum and chastised her office for taking 10 months to bring the case to a grand jury.

"There are two kinds of justice in Travis County — civilian justice for you and me, and justice for law enforcement," Baird said to applause.

Baird said that if a grand jury fails to indict, the office should try again with a different grand jury. He said that Lehmberg's predecessor took the Tom DeLay case before several grand juries before an indictment was returned.

"He has perverted that. He does not know what happened with Tom DeLay," Lehmberg said. This led to a testy exchange during which Lehmberg pointed at Baird and said, "Why don't you just hush."

Attendee Andrew Jackson asked why so many of police shooting victims were unarmed. "I'm just asking a simple question, and it's not being answered," he said.

Police Chief Art Acevedo has said any possible disciplinary action would follow a grand jury decision. Acevedo has said Wagner's actions appeared to be within state law and departmental policies.

Police said that, before the shooting, Carter and a 16-year-old companion walked along East Seventh Street. Officers Wagner and Jeffrey Rodriguez, who were looking for car burglars, followed them, saying they were acting suspiciously. Carter and his friend got into a car that raced toward the officers, police have said.

Wagner shot Carter four times, including once in the head. He shot the teen driver in the arm. The teen recovered. A grand jury did not indict the teen on any charge.