The Anti-Black Roots of Vagrancy Laws in Austin

Dr. Kevin Foster's statement for today's city council vote on Item 185, which if passed, will decriminalize homelessness in Austin—

Among Austin’s challenges are affordability and homelessness. I appreciate work of Council Members Kitchen, Tovo, Casar and others to support the stabilization of our most marginalized. I applaud Housing First options for homelessness, the expansion of mental health services, social services, and safety nets. I hope for the revision of ordinances in Austin that make it illegal to sleep, sit, lie down or solicit while homeless and downtown.

It should be known that our homeless ordinances are eerily similar to our past racist policies. In the 1860s, when Texas was an exceedingly dangerous place for African Americans, Austin happened to be less so. As a result, African Americans migrated in and joined the black population that was already present. They came seeking safety, autonomy and opportunity. This is why we had Kincheonville, Clarksville, Robertson Hill, Wheatville, Gregorytown, Red River, Reyna Branch, and a dozen other freedmen communities – each with an autonomous school and church.

And then we messed up. Our response to the Black presence was to build a police force, criminalize Blacks, and control them. In June 1865, the mayor and city council met to deal with “the fact that a large number of Negroes turned loose by their owners are congregating in and about Austin, as also perhaps desperate white men, making it necessary to organize a police force to deal with them.”

And how did we put our new force to use? Council immediately passed an ordinance to deal with “all able-bodied Negroes who have abandoned the service of their employers, for the purpose of idleness, or who are found loitering or rambling about, or idly wandering about the streets or other public thoroughfares.” Today we no longer whip the idle or lease them to the lowest bidder, as we did then, but we do still saddle people with debts that make their escape from homelessness less likely. And we do, by the way, still disproportionately target Black folk.

When we criminalize sleeping, sitting, or lying down in Austin’s downtown, we aren’t policing evil doers, we are protecting the privilege of those who don’t want to be bothered with the existence of the homeless. Wouldn’t it better to end homelessness instead of empowering officers to police it? And simply shifting ordinance language around may not help either.  When police retain “discretion” to subjectively label as “aggressively confrontive,” we haven’t made things better. We’ve only given power to the implicit racial biases that have characterized policing for as long as it has existed in this city.

Reject ordinances that make it a crime to live while homeless. Turn to less expensive, more effective housing first solutions. Leave the criminalization, jailing, and police state expansion to other communities. Thank you.

Kevin Michael Foster is a Black Studies professor at The University of Texas at Austin and a board member of Grassroots Leadership