Who Can Get Away With Jaywalking?
After an incident last week saw several young black people on Sixth Street punched by police, the question of who’s allowed to misbehave in Austin’s bar district is especially relevant.
I’m going to confess to a crime: I jaywalked on Austin’s Sixth Street on Thursday, and I got away with it. I was running late for a screening at the Austin Film Festival. It was early in the evening, around 8:25, and I had to hustle to the Paramount Theatre on Congress and Seventh to get there on time. So I crossed Brazos Street without the light, and I got away clean.
My crime was on my mind the next morning as I watched video of a group of young black people in the middle of a tense encounter with the Austin Police Department after that exact offense. The video, which has been circulating on social media since the weekend, starts in the middle of the altercation, so it’s still unclear what happened in the moments before. But what we do see is fairly shocking: a half-dozen APD officers burst into the frame, grab one of the men, and start throwing punches and knees into him. As the video continues, the man being punched screams “I’m down! I’m down!” as an officer continues to swing.
After the man has been subdued, the woman in the video asks one of the officers, “What are you going to do with him?” and he responds, “Take him to jail.” She asks, “For what?”, and he says, “Crossing against the light.”
A full incident report was unavailable, and the brief statement APD gave to Texas Monthly said little beyond that they were investigating the incident. Austin’s KEYE talked to Jeremy King, one of the men in the video, who recounted his version of the story:
“We get to the crosswalk and there’s a group of officers there. They see us approaching. One of my friends asked, ‘Are we good to go? Can we walk?’ because we saw the officers looking at us, and they didn’t really answer so we proceeded to walk,” King says.
King says he then turned to his friend and said, “F*** this man, we’re straight.” King says he thinks the officer must have thought the comment was directed at him.
“They approached us very forcefully. They didn’t use many words and said “What’d you say, man?” King says.
King told KEYE that he was charged with jaywalking, but after a night in jail the charges against him were dropped. Matthew Wallace, the man most prominently featured in the video, was charged with both jaywalking and resisting arrest, according to the Austin American-Statesman.
Jaywalking enforcement is actually something that the Austin Police Department has taken seriously for some time. In a two-week stretch in 2011, the department issued more than 200 citations for the offense, and a 2014 jaywalking arrest near the University of Texas made headlines after Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo justified the arrest of a white female jogger by saying “In other cities, cops are actually committing sexual assaults on duty.” More recently, actor Shia LaBeouf was arrested on a public intoxication charge that began when the Transformers star was questioned for jaywalking.
According to the police affidavit, LaBeouf was “increasingly confrontational, aggravated, profane, and verbally aggressive,” and took actions that convinced the officer that he presented a possible physical threat to others on the scene:
LaBeouf reacted very hostile to this stranger by puffing his chest and walking in an aggressive and threatening manner at the male, prompting Sgt. Jelesijevic to intervene and stop LaBeouf from potentially assaulting the stranger. LaBeouf then continued his verbal tirade towards Sgt. Jelesijevic and began to blow up or puff his chest, a sign of prepatory resistance, out at Sgt. Jelesijevic, within two feet of Sgt. Jelesijevic’s face and staring intently at him. During this time LaBeouf began stating he was a member of the National Guard and that Sgt. Jelesijevic needed to do whatever the f*ck you gotta do!
But Shia LaBeouf wasn’t grabbed, punched, placed in a chokehold, or thrown against a wall.
There’ve been four high-profile incidents of racially-charged police violence in Texas this year: the McKinney pool party, Sandra Bland’s arrest, the encounter between a teenage student and police officers at Round Rock High School, and what happened on Sixth Street in Austin last week. There are a few common threads between them. Most notably, they all involve black civilians committing minor infractions. The kids in McKinney were potentially violating homeowner’s association rules; Sandra Bland changed lanes without a signal and then refused to put out her cigarette in her own car; the student in Round Rock got into a fight in class that was long since broken up; and the people on Sixth Street were jaywalking.
But when a person who looks like me or Shia LaBeouf does those things, we don’t tend to have to worry about being beaten by police if we’re caught. So if those common behaviors can be ignored or—at most—peaceably dealt with by police in those cases, then what message does it send about who is allowed to behave the way that many Sixth Street patrons do on a given night?
There’s a debate about racial equality in America that goes beyond Austin and Texas. It’s playing out everywhere from the University of Missouri to Yale to Baltimore to New York to Ferguson and beyond. But when you’re white, and you see black people facing violent consequences for behavior that you’ve engaged in on those same streets, there’s not much left to debate—and the inequality becomes impossible to ignore.